MAXWELL:  At this school, black students succeed

4/11/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


When his schoolmates are in the dormitory lounge watching television and roughhousing, 17-year-old Robert Collins often sits alone thinking of how fortunate he is to be away from his hometown of Baltimore, where his home became a war zone after his mother’s boyfriend moved in with the family. His older brother and sister also suffered from the uncertain, violent arrangement.

“Sometimes, I thought about committing suicide,” he said. “There were too many things going on, and it all hit me at one time. It was unbearable, and I had to get away.”

Robert, an African-American 11th-grader, found a sponsor to send him to Piney Woods Country Life School, a 90-year-old facility tucked away on 2,000 acres of rolling hills, timberland, pastures and lakes 21 miles south of Jackson.

“Piney Woods has a lot to offer,” Robert said. “It teaches you discipline. You meet a lot of people from a lot of different places. You get to see how different people react toward one another. Since I’ve been here, I’ve gained independence, and I’m becoming content with myself. When I came here, I thought very little of myself. But Piney Woods is teaching me how to become a man.”

At a time when much of the nation lambastes public schools for failing America’s children _ especially minorities _ Piney Woods stands as a shining example of how to succeed with children deemed society’s losers.

Piney Woods, founded in 1909 by black educator Laurence Jones, is one of four historically private, black boarding schools left in the nation. Before integration, more than 80 such schools existed. They were havens where Southern black parents sent their children to escape the inadequate, segregated public schools that Jim Crow created. The civil rights movement changed everything, however, causing black support for the schools drop, thereby forcing many to shut down almost immediately. During the past four years, three more of these schools, all in the South, closed.

How does Piney Woods survive, when 80 percent of its students are from low-income families? Why did 60 Minutes feature it? How does it continually send more than 90 percent of its graduates to college each year?

With 300 students in seventh through 12th grade, from 29 states and two African nations, Piney Woods thrives because of its sense of mission, its time-tested pedagogy, its business acumen, its religious faith, its racial pride, its hard work and its stubbornness.

Piney Woods’ third president, Charles H. Beady Jr., speaks of the school’s unique success in unadorned terms: “The mission of the school is to provide education and educational opportunities primarily for youngsters from lower socioeconomic backgrounds within a Christian environment, with the understanding that all students can learn. That’s the way it was when the school started. That’s the way it is now. We are living proof that because a youngster is black, poor and from a single-parent home does not mean that that youngster is automatically destined for academic and social failure.”

Statistics for the American College Test bear out Beady’s claims. In 1990, for example, the average student nationally scored nearly 10 points higher than the average Piney Woods student. In 1997, the national average score on the ACT was 20.9. At Piney Woods, it was 17.9.

“With an overwhelmingly at-risk student population, Piney Woods is inching closer to matching the national average on standardized tests,” Beady said. “We attribute much of this growth to a climate that says to our students that the academic deck of life is not stacked against you here. You can learn. We will see to it that you do.”

Strict discipline lies at the heart of the school’s operation. In no way a boot camp _ students can withdraw whenever they wish _ Piney Woods is a place where adults are in full control, where students must obey all rules and meet all academic standards if they want to remain. “We spend a lot of time making sure students are where they’re supposed to be and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” Beady said.

Attending the school’s two-hour classes is mandatory, and students are required to study two hours each night. Although it prepares students for college, Piney Woods also has a vocational program through which students work 10 hours a week on campus. Some work in the laundry, food service, buildings and grounds or on the 500-acre farm, where much of the campus meat supply is produced. By working, the students help defray the cost of their approximately $10,000 tuition.

Rising at 5:30, students, along with faculty, are required to attend prayer service weekday mornings and church service three times on Sundays. They don clean, crisp uniforms each day and abide by other rules of dress and behavior. “We don’t allow our boys, for instance, to walk around with their drawers showing,” Beady said. “They must wear belts. We don’t allow our boys to wear earrings and those crazy haircuts.” And girls are forbidden to wear sexually provocative outfits.

“None of this is meant to be simply punitive,” he said. “It is meant to have the children focus on what’s in their heads and not what’s on their heads. We don’t need or want “cool pose’ at Piney Woods.”

All youngsters, not just those in ROTC, must say “ma’am” and “sir.” And those caught abusing alcohol or drugs, engaging in gang-related activity, having sexual intercourse, fighting or acting insubordinately, such as talking back to a teacher, are subject to automatic expulsion. Yes, corporal punishment is still permitted.

Without discipline, Beady said, the school’s traditional liberal arts academic program _ with a writing across the curriculum component that encourages students to think critically in all subjects _ would be worthless. But the curriculum is effective, and all students must maintain at least a “C” average.

Piney Woods’ superintendent and principal, Earnest O. Ward Sr., who has been at the school for nearly 25 years, dismisses suggestions that he and his colleagues are old-fashioned: “We don’t apologize. We’re with our students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They need discipline. They want discipline, and we’re giving it to them so that they can be successful in life.

“And because we want to better the whole child, we take the holistic approach to education: We educate the head, the heart and the hand. The head is for knowledge; the heart is for ethical values; and the hand is for work. We let kids know that there is nothing wrong with good, honest work.”

In addition to keeping students on track, Ward’s greatest challenge is recruiting and retaining an excellent faculty. From the outset, the school is at a disadvantage because it pays $2,000 to $3,000 less than the state, which itself is 49th in teacher pay nationwide. And, because Piney Woods is a boarding school, its teachers work for less for longer hours.

Teaching at Piney Woods takes commitment, and one example is 32-year-old Harvard University graduate Michael Cox, a geometry teacher who came to Piney Woods three years ago. Previously, he had taught for five years in public school in Arkansas and the Mississippi Delta as part of the American Teacher Corps. A history major and philosophy minor, Cox became certified in mathematics several years ago after Mississippi announced a severe shortage of teachers in the subject.

Frustrated with conditions in the Delta, Cox, one of six whites on the 25-member faculty, came to Piney Woods and has never regretted the move. He wanted to be with or near his charges all of the time. At Piney Woods, he, like most of the other teachers, lives on campus and frequently visits his students in their dorms to tutor, to play chess, to discuss their personal problems, to simply chat. He regularly plays basketball with the boys.

“I basically try to intervene and prevent something negative and self-destructive that I think is starting to develop,” he said. “It’s like being the catcher in the rye.”

Also like his colleagues, Cox spends much of his personal time off campus with his students. Most recently, he spent a Saturday with the chess team at a tournament in Jackson. Such experiences, Cox said, are critical to the boys’ development: “Anytime you can get in a competitive environment, such as a chess meet or a geometry class, you start confronting self-doubt, which builds self-esteem. Now, you’re better able to step into a job or a professional career or make a career change or do other things that people do.”

Why does a brilliant Harvard graduate, who can write his own personal ticket to wealth, choose to spend his youthful years in the rural South with black children? His reply is admirable: “The greatest historical figures were teachers _ Jesus, Laotzu, Buddha, Socrates. Although teaching comes in many descriptions, each was a teacher. I am a teacher because I think that teaching children is more important than making money on Wall Street or working on Madison Avenue persuading people to buy things they don’t need or don’t want.”

Disappointed with the racial prejudice he witnessed at Harvard, Cox said that he came South, and eventually to Piney Woods, because he wants to understand black culture and, therefore, better understand America and himself. He also wants black children to learn more about white people. “A lot of students here have accepted negative stereotypes about white people,” he said. “I think it’s important that they have a counter example. It’s important to develop cultural fluency, to recognize that there are different cultures.”

Piney Woods operates on an annual budget of nearly $8-million, and survives on an endowment of about $30-million, donations, grants and bequeathals. Its charter mandates that 60 percent of its students must be classified low income. It has attracted donors such as Oprah Winfrey, who gave $43,000 for the school to hire a social worker, and cartoonist Charles Schulz, who donated a dormitory that is affectionately called “Snoopy” Hall.

The average student pays $2,500 of the approximately $10,000 tuition. The school, which graduates 40 to 50 students a year, makes up the rest. Otherwise, most students, such as Robert Collins, could not experience this special place.

Because of the generosity of Piney Woods and its supporters, Robert escaped the self-destruction of his Baltimore neighborhood. “I’m going to college,” he said. “I’m not sure which one. But I’m going because I want to be a lawyer.”