It’s a muggy spring morning and the spirit is alive and moving
through many of the students gathered in the
auditorium-turned-Sunday-chapel at the Piney Woods Country Life School.
This is the last worship service before graduation and summer break,
and the Rev. Robert McCathern is consumed by his weighty charge –
making sure the independent school’s nearly 300 students are prepared
to leave the stony gates of the idyllic campus and return to their
homes across the nation and around the world.
Piney Woods, one of only a handful of Black private boarding schools
left in the country, is where you can “still hear about God” and
“escape what’s out there,” says McCathern, a lean, young and streetwise
“You’ve got to put on the whole armor of God. [You need] the
breastplate of righteousness. [You need to] bind up your feet to walk
in places of peace and put on the helmet of salvation,” he explains
before arriving at one of the more sobering passages of his sermon.
“For many of you, the things and people you left behind in the
streets are still there and your home situations haven’t changed. The
world out there will eat you alive if you let it.”
For eleven months of the school year, many of the students who come
to Piney Woods watch as relatives and friends fall victim to drugs,
violence, and the breakup of families. At Piney Woods, they can live,
study and play in a peaceful and safe environment.
Although the majority of students come from economically-depressed
backgrounds, there is a small percentage, according to Piney Woods
President Charles H. Beady, who come from middle- and upper-income
families. Some of these are the children of legislators and
entrepreneurs. Students come from twenty-five states and several
foreign countries, including Caribbean nations and Ethiopia, to attend
this school which is virtually all Black. Currently, there is one White
An Emphasis on Conduct
Since Beady, an urban education and academic motivation expert,
became the school’s third president in 1985, he has established a
strict uniform code. Every morning, dorm parents – in boot-camp style –
inspect white oxford shirts and Navy blue skirts or trousers. Boys are
banned from wearing earrings, loose-fitting pants that expose their
underwear, and dreadlocked hair styles. Students caught fighting,
kissing, or walking arm in arm can be dismissed from the school.
There are few second chances, according to the school’s principal,
Earnest O. Ward Sr., who often reminds students that attending the
school ‘is a privilege, not a right.”
Under Beady’s guidance, the school makes sure that students fill
their time with constructive activity. Each of the school’s seventh
through twelfth graders spend ten hours a week working in food service,
grounds keeping, maintenance, office support services, the print shop,
the nursery and preschool, and as teacher assistants. They must also
take part in organized study groups and daily chapel services. Three
services are held on Sunday.
Beady Jr. is determined not to let the ways of the world encroach on
Piney Woods’s long held mission of educating and nurturing Black
children – especially those from low-income backgrounds. As a result,
the school recently decided to install surveillance cameras which are
to be strategically placed around the lush 2,000-acre campus to ensure
student protection. However, that decision has angered some students
who charge that the school is spying on them.
For Beady, alarming national statistics on teen pregnancy are enough
justification for the cameras. Just weeks before graduation,
administrators suspended four students who were caught in the dorm room
of a member of the opposite sex. Two of the students were seniors and
were denied the privilege of graduating with their class. Another was
suspended for being pregnant.
“We do everything that’s right, legal and necessary to try and stay
on top of things,” says Beady. “We drag them kicking and screaming
toward excellence. We do what parents need to do for kids.”
For many parents, donors and students, this is part of the appeal of Piney Woods.
Not a Reform School Alternative
There was a time in the school’s eighty-seven-year history when
founder Laurence Jones combed the South seeking wayward Black children
in need of social reformation. Many students and administrators are
saddened that outsiders still consider that to be the primary mission
of Piney Woods.
“That’s certainly not the notion that we encourage now,” said an
emphatic Beady, who admitted that some of its students are on the
borderline. “However, Piney Woods is not an alternative to reform
“[The] ideal Piney Woods student,” he explains, “is a young person,
who for reasons beyond their control, is slipping through society’s
cracks; or who wants to be in a safe, orderly environment and who wants
to abide by the rules and regulations that we have in place…. That’s
certainly the ideal profile, but not the one we always get.”
Henry Journigan, a seventeen-year-old junior from Pickens,
Mississippi, never wanted to attend Piney Woods. That idea was his
mother’s, who had wanted to attend when she was her son’s age.
“She never had the opportunity, so it was her dream for me to come
to Piney Woods,” says Journigan, recalling how his mother cried in the
car all the way to school on his first day.
Journigan never thought that he’d find himself on the other side of
Mississippi, “in the middle of nowhere.” But since enrolling here in
the eighth grade, he has come full circle.
“Living on campus has been fun,” he says.
The school has also served as a supportive refuge for Journigan, who
recently lost his twenty-two-year-old brother to a drive-by shooting.
“He was the only strong male figure in my life,” Journigan says. In the fall, his younger brother will join him at Piney Woods.
College entrance exam scores for Piney Woods seniors have been
getting closer to the national average. The median score for the
school’s seniors on the ACT – one of the nation’s two major college
entrance exams – is 18.3. The national average is 20.9.
“Not bad,” says a critical Beady. “It’s not where we want to be, but it’s decent.”
An informal survey conducted by school officials revealed that
upwards of 90 percent of Piney Woods students go on to college, and
approximately two-thirds of them earn degrees. One-third of those
graduates pursue advanced degrees.
Michigan State and Case Western Reserve Universities are conducting
a more comprehensive and scientific study that tracks Piney Woods
students after they leave the school.
Laverne Hill’s parents enrolled her and her younger sister in Piney
Woods after seeing the school featured on the CBS television show “60
Minutes.” Hill, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, graduated third in this
year’s class. After being accepted at a half dozen prestigious
institutions, she decided to attend Smith College in Massachusetts.
For some students, the school’s traditional curriculum I which
offers the basic disciplines of English, mathematics, science and
social studies – provides enough instruction to land them in Ivy League
schools. For others, however, that is not the case.
Five years ago, school officials began encouraging some graduates to
spend a fifth year of high school at Northfield Mount Herman. While
Beady makes no apology for Piney Wood’s no frills core curriculum he
admits that some students need more. “Up [North] boarding schools, with
their megamillion dollar budgets, just have more to offer,” he says.
Makini Aminika of Pasadena, California, is one of the two 1997
graduates who will attend Northfield Mount Herman. Although she is glad
she was accepted, she worries about how her mother, a postal worker and
a single parent, will be able to afford the $24,000 tuition.
“I wanted to do a postgraduate year because I wanted a stronger
academic foundation…. I want to take more courses in the arts and be
in a better position to compete for college scholarships,” Aminika said.
Institutions in Decline
Some educators and parents are counting on the ability of Piney
Woods, which is not affiliated with any church or religious
denomination, to provide a Christian-based haven for learning that’s
free of racial tension.
“This model for education is working, but like other independent
schools, it isn’t taken seriously by the mainstream education
community,” said Joan Davis Ratteray, president and founder of the
Washington, D.C.- based Institute for Independent Education. The
institute is a membership organization of nearly 400 independent Black
elementary, secondary and boarding schools.
For the first half of the twentieth century, Black boarding schools,
which numbered between eighty and one hundred, were a safe place from
racial strife during the Jim Crow segregation years. That changed,
however, with the civil rights era and desegregation.
“Most of them no longer exist because we stopped supporting them,”
Beady explained. “Integration led to the feeling that because we were
free to attend schools of our choice, those schools that supported us
when we had no choice were no longer needed. Most ceased to exist.”
Ratteray agreed, saying, “These schools lost the support of the African American community.”
Vividly illustrating that point, the eighty-six-year-old Southern
Normal School in Brewton, Alabama, which was operated by the Reformed
Church of America closed its doors in January. The Ebon International
Preparatory Academy in Forsyth, Georgia, soon followed.
However, Steve Ruzicka, executive director of The Association of
Boarding Schools (TABS) in Washington, D.C., feels Southern Normal may
reopen in the fall.
“It’s happened before at other schools,” he said.
While Black boarding schools are struggling to bolster the number of
students on campus, the number of students of color entering
traditionally White residential schools has tripled since 1985,
according to TABS.
With little government funding Piney Woods is struggling to woo
celebrity and church donors. Only a handful of families actually pay
the school’s full tuition $8,300 a year. The average tuition paid is
just under $2,000. Beady estimates the cost of educating a student on
campus at nearly $22,000. The school usually makes up the difference
between the cost of tuition and what the students families can pay.
The school has a $30 million endowment, approximately 10 percent of
which goes toward its annual budget of $6.8 million. A new fund-raising
program, called “Circle of Churches,” is soliciting donations from a
host of religious institutions to underwrite the cost of tuition for
Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, in 1996, donated $43,000 to hire the
school’s first in-house social worker. Cartoonist Charles Schulz, of
“Peanuts” fame, donated funds to build a girls’ honors dormitory.
School officials are also stepping up efforts to reach more alumni.
While alumni giving is up, it remains at less than 10 percent of all
donations received, according to Beady. “They give, but not at the
level we would like.”
The struggle for the survival of Black residential and independent
schools is seen as critical. More than forty years after Brown v. The
Board of Education, “visible racial distinctions still remain in
America’s public and private schools,” concluded a study released in
June by the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute of the College
Fund/UNCF. The impact has negatively affected the academic achievement
of African-American students in preschool through high school.
“That’s why we can’t stand to lose these schools,” Beady says,
“because of what it stands for and the potential that it offers as, at
least, a partial solution to the academic mess that this country is in.”
There’s a need for an alternative to the nation’s “one size fits all
model of educating students,” he adds. “Schools like Piney Woods offer
that kind of alternative system.”
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com