BROOKSVILLE — It's Wednesday morning and time to sing for Jesus at Hernando Christian Academy.
On a stage at one end of the school's gymnasium, school chaplain Todd Turner leads a five-member band complete with cherry red electric guitar, keyboard and drum kit. About 100 middle and high school students stand in front of folding chairs, swaying to the music.
Faux stone tablets etched with the Ten Commandments hang above the stage. On another wall, a banner emblazoned with a roaring feline welcomes visitors to the Lions' Den.
After a few songs, Pastor Jimmy Chisholm, a guest speaker from Spring Hill who attended the school in the early 1990s, encourages the students to be thankful for their blessings and turn over their tension to God.
"Release the pressure," Chisholm advises. "You need to sing out, you need to dance, you need to cry, you need to shout. You need to do it for Jesus."
Shortly after, the bell rang and the students headed to class.
As Hernando Christian celebrates its 30th anniversary, the school is facing pressure of its own.
The brutal economy has forced families who could no longer afford $6,000 to $7,000 in annual tuition to say difficult goodbyes to the pre-K-12 school. A student enrollment that had peaked at more than 500 is now down to a little more than 200.
As students left, staffers had to be let go — about 18 in the last four years, said superintendent Ken Alvarez, who joined the school as a secondary principal in 2006 and took the top post in late 2008.
"It's very tough when you have people who have been with us quite a number of years," Alvarez said. "We've had to make some hard decisions."
But the school is pressing on as a family, students and teachers said.
Though students and staffers have gone, programs have not. Classes have been added with a focus on bolstering the science program through all grade levels. Students are besting the national average in standardized achievement tests, and the school has managed to preserve all of its varsity sports teams.
The academy earned re-accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools last year and was also recertified to accept international students.
"God has a purpose for the school," Alvarez said. "Certainly we can't predict the economy and don't even suggest to know the mind of God, but we try to be submissive and do the will of God."
In 1981, a group of parents at Eden Christian School in Brooksville decided to branch off to form their own school. The fledgling Hernando Christian Academy held its first classes in Ron Woodruff's accounting office in Brooksville and then at Masaryktown Baptist Church before moving into a donated trailer.
Joseph Mena, a parent of a student, donated a 10-acre tract on Emerson Road, just south of the State Road 50 bypass, and the main building sprang up on the oak-shaded property in 1984.
"The philosophy of the parents was to provide a private, inter-denominational, nonprofit Christian school designed to give a Bible-based education in a loving environment," according to a school profile.
Beverly Hinkson came on as a third-grade teacher in 1989. That was before the gymnasium rose out of the ground, before the grass sprouted on the baseball and soccer fields.
Hinkson's two daughters and a future son-in-law would go on to graduate from the school, and Hinkson still teaches third grade there. She could make a lot more money and enjoy pension benefits working for the public school district but says she has never been tempted to leave.
"I believe this is a ministry God is calling me to," Hinkson said during recess Wednesday as she watched her students romp on playground equipment. "I have the freedom not just to teach the children the academics, but to fully speak about my faith."
The gymnasium complex with eight classrooms opened in 1990. Five years later, enrollment peaked at 530 and hovered there for several years as Hernando's building boom continued.
The school added portables to house a computer lab, art room and science lab, and bought land to bring the campus to 30 acres. There are now four permanent buildings, eight portables and 32 classrooms.
By 2006 enrollment had dropped to about 400. It's half that now, with a teaching staff of 20. Plans to break ground on a new high school building have been put on hold.
The financial aid program has been cut significantly, from $120,000 last year to $45,000 this year, Alvarez said.
"Our hope is that we've seen the bottom of the enrollment picture and it will start turning around," he said.
To earn re-accreditation, the school sought to increase its science offerings. The academy added an elementary school science lab, and high school students can take courses such as anatomy, marine science and forensics. That required a creative approach to scheduling, and teachers now must teach middle and high school level courses, Alvarez said.
Classes remain small, averaging 12 students at the elementary level and 15 students in the middle and high school grades.
"The entire staff really has had a phenomenal attitude about working together and doing whatever it takes to make our school successful," Alvarez said.
The work is paying off, he said. Last year, the school achieved record high test scores. K-8 students scored in the top 28 percent in the nation on the Stanford Achievement Test. High school students continue to score above the national average on the SAT and ACT.
To graduate, students are required to complete 100 hours of community service. A higher diploma requires 200 hours. Graduates most often go on to in-state schools such as the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of South Florida and Florida Southern College.
Students, parents and other volunteers have kept the school going, said Jeanie Parker, whose daughter enrolled in 1987. Parker has served as the school's business manager since 1992.
Fall festivals, spaghetti dinners, whatever it took, Parker said. That same spirit shows in the gift baskets put together by parents and students for the silent auction to be held during an anniversary celebration today.
"That's really what we're about," Parker said.
Kathey Samson's son graduated in 2002, her daughter four years later. She appreciated the atmosphere of open faith.
"If my kids had a problem, they had a certain teacher they could go and pray with and talk to," said Samson, who is now a teacher at the school.
Jacob Vandemark, 20, graduated in 2008 and now teaches high school worship class, so this year marks his 18th at the school.
"I wouldn't have gone anywhere else," Vandemark said. "Yeah, the school is small and we don't have as many programs, but everybody knows everybody. You have a relationship with teachers that's almost one-on-one. It's almost like a church in a school setting."
Senior Brielle Knight likes the familial feel, too. She acknowledges that her counterparts in the public school district have more electives to choose from, and that some students leaving the tiny school for large colleges or universities can experience a shock.
It has been tough to see friends and teachers leave the school because of hard financial times, Knight said.
"It's been a struggle for everybody to be strong," she said. "But I think the people who came back are glad they did."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.