WHEATFIELD -- In a sunlit room tucked into a corner of The Summit mall, three third- and fourth-graders sat quietly studying science with a teacher's aide one afternoon last week.
They had begun their day with prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. In the afternoon, they sat at desks arranged in a small semicircle; the teacher, just a few feet away, read out loud from a book about birds.
The focus at Christ the King Preparatory Academy is on the basics: Bible study, reading, writing and arithmetic.
"We really felt it was just placed on our hearts to start a Christian school that really goes back to basics," said Maria Morabito, headmistress of the academy. "We wanted to reach out to the community and provide another private school."
In a region where private Christian schools have been closing because of declining enrollment, the academy is bucking the trend. A small group of parents and educators started a new private elementary and middle school, associated with Wheatfield Community Church, in September. They hope to expand the school one day to provide prekindergarten through 12th grade.
Christ the King has started small.
The school has found a temporary home in a former bank in the mall, where Wheatfield Community Church has been meeting for three years. A room that serves as the church sanctuary on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings becomes an all-purpose room for the children during the week. Two former offices have been transformed into classrooms.
There is only one paid staff member; Morabito, a licensed speech pathologist, is running the school but is not yet taking a salary.
Morabito believes the school will appeal to parents who want to home-school their children but can't, or who "want a strong Christian background but haven't found what they're looking for."
Annual tuition starts at $1,800 for 4- and 5-year-olds in the junior kindergarten class and increases incrementally through eighth grade.
The school's first six pupils have been in class for little more than a month. Already, organizers believe they have begun to see changes in the youngsters' enthusiasm for school.
"My son loves to read, so he's absolutely loving all of the school books," said Ann Blake, teacher's aide and mother of two children in the program.
The school, which is a mission of the community church, has applied for a charter of incorporation with the state Education Department and is awaiting approval, Morabito said.
She believes the strength of the school is in its literature-based, Christian home-schooling curriculum, Sonlight, developed by a Colorado-based company in the early 1990s.
"We may actually be new as a school, but we're using a very established curriculum," Morabito said.
Christ the King is nondenominational and focuses religious teachings on the Bible.
Niagara Falls resident Kathy Doel enrolled her granddaughter, Georgia, in Christ the King after learning about it from Morabito. She said her granddaughter, a reluctant pupil, now looks forward to class.
Doel liked the individual attention her granddaughter has received.
"In the public school, so many kids are left behind, and they're failing the state exams. Kids that follow a home-school curriculum, they're doing well," Doel said. "It was like you're having a home-school curriculum, but you're having a teacher teaching and you have the structure and organization of school."
Parents considering enrolling their children in Christ the King can call 553-6318 or go online to www.wheatfieldcommunitychurch.org.