generic_school_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

RIVIERA BEACH — One of the oldest black private schools in Palm Beach County is struggling to stay open and its prospects are looking uncertain.

R.J. Hendley Christian Community School in Riviera Beach has been serving the black community for nearly 28 years but is now feeling financial pressure.

In 2008, the school at 2800 R.J. Hendley Ave. announced that it would have to close due to financial problems, but an anonymous donor provided a lump-sum donation which kept it afloat.

School officials have refused to talk about the situation.

Still, it is known that the school has had to make drastic changes. It once served children from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, but the high school component was discontinued in 2008 and classes now run through middle school only.

The school’s Website puts the enrollment at 359 but a story in the Palm Beach Post on Jan. 14 said enrollment dropped to 139 after the financial problems were disclosed in 2008.

Also, while the Website said the school had 39 teachers, the Post put the number at 15 full time staff. The Post also said staff received half of their salaries in January, pending the arrival of state tuition vouchers this month.

Many low-income families receive state vouchers to attend the school, while other families pay the tuition of about $3,950 annually, according to the Post story. That does not bring in enough income to run the school, leaving it to rely on donations, grants and other forms of contribution, the Post said.

Keeping the school open is important for parents such as Latrice Dean of Wellington, who has two sons at R.J. Hendley: Darius, 7, a first-grader, and Derrick, 14, an eighth-grader. Derrick has attended the school since he was 3 and Darius since he was 4.

Dean said because of the personal touch from the teachers and the administration and the Christian upbringing, she wouldn’t trade R.J. Hendley for any other school.  She drives from the far western suburbs of Palm Beach County, east into the city, then north to Riviera Beach to take her boys to the school, making for an hour-long commute each morning.

“It’s worth it when I see my kids’ grades, their behavior and the fact that it’s a Christian school,” she said. “It’s worth every mile that I drive.”

Dean, 43, has experienced the school in its heyday and now in the time of its money troubles.

“I’ve seen them at their highest and I’ve seen them at the lowest,” she said.

She said she has seen changes for the better since Shirley Wright became headmaster.

“I see them streamlining and getting back to where they were before,” Dean said. “I see them, with the help of everybody and the community coming back and even getting better than where they were before.”
 
The building housing the school was a nightclub known as the Cotton Club, a popular nightspot. The late R.J. Hendley Jr., pastor of Greater Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in Riviera Beach, started the school in 1982 as an after-school tutorial program at the church. As the program grew, it moved into the old nightclub building in 1983 and, a few years later, purchased another building.

“The school has been a rich tradition in Riviera Beach,” Charles Hendley, son of the founder, said in the Post article. Hendley, chairman of the board, told the Post he and the board and staff are committed to moving forward in educating the youth of the community.
 
Dawn Ferrus, also of Wellington, said her child has been attending the school since the second grade and she is unhappy that he has to move to a different school when he completes the eighth grade. The boy is autistic and, his mother said, he did not benefit from being in the public school system. At R.J. Hendley, she said, he has been showing marked progress.

“The teachers went beyond the call of duty,” Ferrus said. “R.J. Hendley was God-sent for me and my family. The kids, when they go to this school, they say they feel like family. The teachers push them to excel. They really care about them.”

Kenyon “Kruise” Link, 34, founder of  KG Models, staged a fashion show on Jan. 8 to showcase his business and raise funds for R.J. Hendley.

He said he learned of the problems of the school through a designer whose mother is an administrator at R.J. Hendley.  Proceeds from the fashion show were split between the school and Livestrong, the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Link declined to say how much went to the school.

For information on how to donate to the school, call 561-842-1349.

Daphne Taylor may be reached atdaphnetaylor_49 @hotmail.com.