BENTON HARBOR — Principal Don Pearson of River of Life Christian School has been busy since he took over leading the Benton Harbor school in July.

Besides talking to families and neighbors about what the school has to offer, he said he has been speaking at surrounding churches on the weekends to raise money. That’s because even though it costs about $8,000 a year to educate a child, parents only pay 5 percent of the family’s income to send their children to the school. He said donations are needed to make up the difference.

“One of our mottos is that it’s a Christ-centered education that families can afford,” he said. “I go to speak (at the churches) about the school and how we’ve been blessed and the needs.”

All of his talking is working. The school’s attendance has grown from six students last school year to 30 students, with a waiting list this year in grades K-5. He said he wants to expand up to eighth-grade soon.

“Most of the parents come here because of the culture in terms of the environment and the academic rigor,” he said. “... Being in a Christ-centered environment, we begin every day in prayer. We have an all-school assembly and I lead the students and staff in prayer.”

Being at a small school has some advantages.

“I greet the kids every day as they’re getting out of their cars,” he said. “When they leave, I do the same thing. I talk to the parents. I talk to the neighbors. I talk to community members. They understand that my role as the educational leader of this building is to educate children in Benton Harbor.”

In addition, he’s helping the school gain access to federal government programs, including free and reduced breakfast and lunch through the National School Lunch Program and professional development for the teachers. The school also qualified for a part-time reading intervention teacher.

Pearson said there has been some confusion in the community about how the services are being paid for.

The state constitution prohibits public money being paid to private schools, so many of the services are funneled through the hosting district, Benton Harbor Area Schools, as required by law.

“We get the services. We don’t get the money,” he said.

The services don’t take money away from the Benton Harbor school district, he said.

If the services weren’t being provided to River of Life students, he said the money would go back to the government. Pearson said he’s working with the Benton Harbor school district to start providing bus services to his students. He said a preliminary poll showed that about 30 percent of his parents are interested in this service.

Federal law requires that “equitable services” be provided to private schools for the education of migratory children and children with special needs, along with for teacher training and for English language learners.

The Michigan Department of Education requires the host districts to notify private schools within their borders by April 1 of the auxiliary services available to its students in the following school year. 

“I’m not competing with Benton Harbor Area Schools,” said Pearson, a native of Benton Harbor and former teacher and administrator with the district. “I pray for Benton Harbor Area Schools every day. I want them to succeed. ... My thing is simply – this is an alternative and I’m here to educate kids.”

The school’s 30 students are divided into two blended classrooms – grades K-2 and grades 3-5.

“It’s nondenominational. The kids who attend here range from Baptist to Jehovah’s Witnesses to you name it. It varies,” he said.

Academics are taught in the morning by teachers. In the afternoon, volunteers with expertise in technology, Spanish, art, music and physical education take over the teaching, giving the teachers planning time.

Pearson said the school also has many people who volunteer as tutors.

“We don’t take (the students) out of class to be tutored only if they have deficits,” he said. “We take them out to push them and challenge them, also.”

He said he’s in the process of setting up a 120-gallon saltwater fish tank at the school, where the students will be introduced to oceanography.

River of Life started in the fall of 2014 in four classrooms of the former Lighthouse Ministries on Pipestone Street before moving into the former daycare and preschool building owned by St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church at 671 McAlister St. in the fall of 2017. River of Life bought the building this past spring.

For more information or to volunteer, call 257-7549, or email rolschoolbh@gmail.com.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege

An earlier version of this story had incorrect contact information for River of Life Christian School.