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Piney Woods Country Life School: Investing in the future of Mississippi

Essential Business

Perhaps Dr. Charles H. Beady, president of Piney Woods Country Life School, summed up the school’s purpose and mission the best.

“Our goal is to eradicate that sense of futility,” he said.

That objective has been at the heart of the private, historically-Black boarding school since it was founded in 1909 by Dr. Lawrence Clifton Jones. Jones saw a dire need of former slaves who, though legally free, found the chains of poverty harder to break. So he started conducting class on a log under a tree on the school’s current site. The curriculum was practical — instruction in sanitation, sound work habits, health and fitness, sewing and cooking. Jones believed once these survival skills were mastered, then instruction could progress to trades and professions.

Today, Piney Woods employs 145 and is situated on 2,000 total acres. The current student body is composed of youngsters, grades 7-12, representing 30 states — including one from Alaska, and one from the Virgin Islands.

But the same basic tenet holds today — break the cycle of futility and hopelessness by offering a better chance.

“One misconception about Piney Woods School is that we take ‘bad’ kids,” said Beady, who is only the fourth president the school has had. “We take poor children. This isn’t a boot camp or alternative school. It is a Christian-oriented school, and discipline is interwoven into every part of student life. We want to teach our students that there is nothing wrong with hard work. And if you come here, you have to work.”

The school is more than serious about the rules. Beady said the school started this year with its full complement of 300 students, but would not be surprised if perhaps only270 finished the year.

“If you don’t follow the rules, if you’re not willing to work, then we’ll send you back home and maybe we can try it again next year,” Beady said. “You’ll notice our students say ‘No, sir’ and ‘Yes, ma’am’. That’s what we expect. We demand a lot of our students and school rules are strictly enforced.”

The benefits to Mississippi from Piney Woods’ commitment and work ethic is hard to put in a figure, but the return is measurable. At the school, new and progressive techniques in agricultural education and experimentation are expounded in the areas of horticulture, soil studies, nutrition, farm management, animal science, agricultural economics and environmental science. This knowledge and experience has then been passed on to the community.

One example is a waste-to-energy project just completed and unveiled on campus this month. Looking for ways to eradicate the health and environmental concerns raised by the waste in raising swine, Piney Woods developed a covering for waste lagoons which traps the odors and breaks down the waste naturally. In addition, the “anabolic digestor” also allows the trapped gas to be converted into usable energy for lights and hot water, giving the farmer a “powerful” shot in the arm.

But one doesn’t have to look any further than Piney Woods’ alumni success rates to see the school’s impact. Since 1995, more than 95% of all graduates have gone on to colleges such as Oberlin, Princeton, Harvard and Vassar. Every single member of the 1997-98 graduating class was accepted into college.

These numbers would be great for any school. But factor in that, as mandated by the school’s board of directors, a minimum of 60% of all students must come from households subsisting at or below the poverty level, and the figures are staggering. Historically, these children from disadvantaged socio-economic standing don’t perform well academically, much less go on to higher education. For its students, Piney Woods, the largest of the only four remaining historically Black boarding schools in the U.S., represents opportunity and encouragement.

Because the school is private, it receives no federal or state funding. According to school figures, each student costs about $25,000 to get through a school year. Since most are from desperate financial conditions, only a fraction of the tuition can be expected from parents’ pockets. Thus, Piney Woods isn’t tuition-driven, but survives on grant-writing and gifts and donations from individuals, groups and businesses.

Beady said his future goal is to raise endowments to a minimum of $45 million, giving the school stability and allow for facility improvements. The aim is to have half of all operating expenses covered by endowed gifts. To this end, Piney Woods has begun actively marketing a planned-giving program and is exploring the idea of a capital fund campaign.

“The giving of businesses as well as individuals is extremely critical,” Beady said. “The only way we can exist and provide quality instruction, because of our students’ socio-economic status, is through the generosity of others.”

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Piney Woods Country Life School is located on U.S. 49 about 20 miles south of Jackson. It may be reached by calling (601) 845-2214 or by visiting its Web site at www.pineywoods.org.

About Wally Northway

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