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Black boarding schools provide haven of discipline, learning

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2003


Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist William Raspberry and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young have at least one thing in common: Each graduated from a historically black boarding school.

Before the 1960s, nearly 100 such schools existed nationwide, mostly in the South. 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 -- which gave blacks the right to attend previously all-white public schools -- changed everything. Black support for the boarding schools fell, forcing many to shut down immediately.

Today, only four of the schools remain, and they comprise what is called the Association of Historically African-American Boarding Schools.

Founded in 1909, Piney Woods Country Life School is about 21 miles southwest of Jackson, Miss. It is tucked away on 2,000 acres of rolling hills, timberland, pastures and lakes. It has 280 students in seventh through 12th grade. The campus is nearly self-sufficient with, among other programs and facilities, its own post office, security force, a working farm, intramural sports teams, athletic fields, chapel, and amphitheater. Many of the teachers live in houses and apartments on campus. The students come from more than 30 states and several African nations.

Charles H. Beady Jr., Piney Woods' third president, explained the school's viability: "The mission of the school is to provide education and educational opportunities primarily for youngsters from lower socioeconomic backgrounds 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 youngsters are black, poor and from a single-parent home does not mean they are automatically destined for academic failure. With an overwhelmingly at-risk student population, Piney Woods is inching closer to matching the national average on standardized tests. We attribute much of this success 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 is Piney Woods' cornerstone. Adults are in control, and students must meet all academic standards. Attending class is mandatory, and students are required to study two hours each night.

At 5:30 each weekday morning, students and faculty must attend prayer service, and they must attend three church services on Sundays. For daily classes, they don a clean, crisp uniform and abide by other rules of dress and behavior.

"We don't allow our boys 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. Our girls are forbidden to wear sexually provocative outfits. None of this is meant to be punitive. It it is meant to have the children focus on what's in their heads -- not what's on their heads. We don't need or want 'cool pose' at Piney Woods."

All students must say "ma'am" and "sir" to adults. 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. Without such discipline, Beady said, the school's traditional liberal arts academic program would fail.

Although a college preparatory campus, Piney Woods has a highly regarded vocational program. Each student works 10 hours a week on campus either in 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.

Ernest O. Ward Sr., superintendent and principal, said Piney Woods' dedicated teachers are its most valuable assets. His toughest challenge is recruiting an excellent faculty because Piney Woods pays $3,000 to $5,000 less than the state, which itself ranks near the bottom nationally in teacher's salary. The school's teachers also work longer hours than their public school peers.

Such commitment pays off. Records show that in 2001, 95 percent of the school's graduates enrolled in college and the other 5 percent joined the armed forces through the school's ROTC.

Piney Woods operates on an annual budget of about $8-million, primarily from private donations, grants and bequeathals. Its charter mandates that 60 percent of its students must be classified as low income. It has attracted donors such as Oprah Winfrey, who gave $43,000 to hire a social worker. The late Charles Schulz donated a dormitory that students affectionately call "Snoopy Hall."

Despite its academic success, Piney Woods faces economic hard times. To raise funds, Beady has launched a national campaign. From April 25-27, in Los Angeles, Piney Woods will host the first Annual National Black Boarding Weekend. Activities will include a panel discussion on issues facing Piney Woods and its three counterparts, a golf tournament, concerts and what is dubbed a "grand class reunion" for alumni of all black boarding schools, including those that closed decades ago.

"All activities are open to adults, regardless of race," said Marvin Jones, Piney Woods' program coordinator. "People of all ethnicities support us, and we want and need to attract new benefactors."

Interested persons can get more information about the school at its Web site, www.Pineywoods.org, or they may telephone (601) 845-2214.

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