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A bold decision to start a school in an underserved Cleveland neighborhood, made by the leaders of a 150-year-old institution, has born early fruit. Test scores are up among 112 kindergarteners and first-graders at Stepstone Academy, and the work has garnered an Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award.

OhioGuidestone, formerly the Berea Children’s Home and Family Services, launched the new charter school in 2012, picking a building on E. 32nd St. and Carnegie Avenue in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood.

The newly enrolled youngsters, living in one of Cleveland’s poorest sections, tested that August in the bottom 10 percent of students nationally. Nine months later, 85 percent of the children had made more than a year’s worth of progress, and the student body’s average achievement score ranked near the top 25 percent nationally.

“We just adore this work and these kids we are serving,” said Richard Frank, executive director of OhioGuidestone, crediting “momentum learning” that capitalizes on both teacher-led and online instruction.

Frank accepted a plaque and a check for $20,000 from Robert E. Eckardt, executive vice president of the Cleveland Foundation, which administers Edith Anisfield Wolf’s funds. The men accepted warm applause from an audience gathered for the Center for Community Solutions’ annual breakfast. It celebrates a cadre of inspirational volunteers and the Anisfield-Wolf winner.

That annual prize goes to “a community organization that has performed outstanding service during the previous 12 months, service that goes beyond normal and expected activity,” Eckardt said.

“The success of Stepstone Academy’s first year carried over into the 2013-1014 school year, with 80 percent of students returning to the school in August 2013,” he said. “Stepstone Academy is well on its way to having a transformational impact on the lives of students, parents, and the Central neighborhood.”

This fall, Stepstone added third grade and enrollment climbed to 260 students, with an additional 50 preschoolers in Head Start, said superintendent Susan Hyland. It plans to add a grade each year.

The neighborhood has no other charter school, high illiteracy, and the majority of its residents living below the poverty line, Frank said.  To address “the poverty and homelessness,” OhioGuidestone created Stepstone 360 to surround student families. It works as “a gateway to access services and resources that help solve the tough problems blocking student achievement.”

Frank voiced OhioGuidestone’s pleasure at being selected for the Anisfield-Wolf prize, and with a dollop of emotion, declared “this school has been an act of love each and every step of the way.”