n a town where businesses open and close before the exterior paint is dry, the 63rd anniversary of Riviera School could be looked at as a phenomenon of sorts. But it’s the hard work, dedication and drive that make the institution a hallmark in educational excellence.
Riviera Day School was founded in 1950 by the Coppock family and was taken over in 1972 by Lawrence Cohen, a New York educator. Cohen and his wife, also an educator, fled the harsh upstate New York winters for sunny South Florida with their family in tow. Their son Peter Cohen, now associate director of Riviera Schools, was first a student at the original campus at 6800 Nervia Street in Coral Gables, on the edge of South Miami near Sunset Drive and Red Road.
After graduation, the younger Cohen went on to law school and practiced law for a while before returning to Riviera in 1996.
“I came full circle and landed back at Riviera,” said Peter Cohen. “I returned to my roots.”
At the time, Riviera was a day school serving students in pre-kindergarten through 8th grade, but both father and son had visions of expanding.
“We identified early on that it really was a dream of ours to be able to continue the educational process with our students through the next level,” said Cohen.
That dream became a reality two years ago when Riviera opened its second campus four miles away from the day school. The opening coincided with Riviera’s 60th anniversary.
“After so many years of working with our students through middle school and moving them on to other high schools, mostly private, parents would always ask us, ‘Why don’t you have a high school?’ ‘Where should our children go?’ ‘What’s the next Riviera?’ Of course, we have close relationships with many schools in the area, but we never found a school just like Riviera,” said Cohen.
It was apparent the father and son team would have to take the first step. Together, they worked years: “many more than we wanted to” but were happy to finally make it happen.” In August of 2011, the middle school was moved to the new campus at 9775 SW 87th Avenue.
Riviera School recently held a Shed Your Threads Day, a student government sponsored event, allowing the normally uniform-clad students to drop a couple dollars in exchange for dressing down.
In many classroom windows, and up and down the corridors, famous quotes about excuse-making serve as a reminder to step up and be responsible. Typically, there are 10 to 20 students in a classroom, and the enthusiasm for teaching and learning is evident throughout.
The campus looks very much like a university setting with lots of green space and trees, and a place where students can eat lunch. Students get a mid-morning break, and on Friday, that break is used for a school-wide assembly. Students gather informally under the trees.
“We talk to the students about different things,” said Cohen. “We call up students for recognition and we use this assembly time as a bonding experience.”
While both campuses have the same educational philosophy, the hands-on approach changes over the years.
“It all starts with the youngest student,” said Cohen. “But you treat a 15-year-old differently than a 5-year-old.”
The atmosphere at Riviera is warm, friendly and familial.
“We are very strongly committed to maintaining an academically rigorous environment, but that’s not everything,” said Cohen. “We’re not solely focused on academics.”
Faculty and staff members are well aware there are many facets of child development.
“We are proud to foster an environment that is conducive developing the whole child,” said Cohen. “We balance very well the academic side with maintaining an environment that I think is second to none.”
The personal hands-on approach to learning allows for a strong relationship with students.
“We know our students,” he said.
One significant factor in the intimate vibe is maintaining a relatively small learning environment. Riviera is large enough to offer all the resources and extra-curricular activities that define a great school, while small enough to make them accessible to all.
“We make these real opportunities,” said Cohen. “Every student should be able to walk around the school and feel like they are an important part of this environment. I think we do that very well.”
The faculty encourages students to be creative and thoughtful on all levels.
“I tell families; you’re not going to love every minute of every day, and you’re not going to love every test you take, but you should love school,” said Cohen.
Applying to Riviera
There are a number of steps in the application process, explained Cohen. School records, recommendations, admissions exam, behavior review, review by an admissions committee are all part of it.
“Not every school is right for every student and not every student is right for every school. Every school has different philosophies about the admission process. Ours is just to make sure that the students are a good fit, and if we can find that out in advance through the admission process, then we’ve done the right thing,” said Cohen.
“When you find the right-fit school, the educational experience can be incredible, and it should be that for every student,” said Cohen.
Riviera’s opportunities for students
The majority of Riviera’s faculty members have advanced degrees, although it’s not a requirement. Mastery of the material is an important component, too, but more than that, enthusiasm, dedication and commitment are paramount, said Cohen.
For sports-oriented students, Riviera, home of the Bulldogs, offers basketball, football, wrestling, golf, water polo, swimming, volleyball, soccer, tennis and lacrosse. Recently the volleyball team hosted a parent-teacher after-school match.
“The faculty has yet to be defeated,” said Cohen.
The library is open before and after school and all hours in between. Often teachers schedule classes in the library.
“Teaching is an art,” said Cohen, as he watched an animated Mr. Jordan bounce around his students. “And he is a favorite. If you engage your students, you win.”
Riviera’s second campus is a college preparatory fscility. In addition to the core curriculum, students can elect to focus on music and art, architecture, engineering, dance, graphics, web design, film appreciation, performing arts and other subjects.
“Our standards are spectacular,” said Cohen. “This is why our students are happy to be in school.”
An 11th grade will be added in 2013-14 and 12th grade the following year. Another wing is underway completing the U-shaped campus. Shuttle bus service is available from the Day School campus to the Prep School campus, and door-to-door bus service is available for Day School students for a fee.
“I love that we know that the students are happy here,” said Cohen.
Cohen and his father continue to share the vision. Both have offices on both campuses, and they continue to work well together.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love,” he said.
For more information on Riviera Day School, call 305-666-1856. For Riviera Preparatory School, call 786-300-0300.