California native Kamau Clark was worried when it was decided that he would be attending the Piney Woods School in Mississippi. He had heard a lot about the South, but his sister, an alumna of the boarding school, told him not to worry, he said. But he was used to tons of traffic, noise and huge buildings, which Mississippi lacked.
“When I came down to Mississippi, the only thing I saw was trees for miles. I didn’t see a lot of buildings. Everything was different,” Clark told the Mississippi Free Press. “I was worried when I came, but it turned out to be a great experience at the end of the day.”
In 2017, he entered Piney Woods as a 9th grader, but today, he’s a senior with plans to major in aerospace engineering and has his sights set on attending CalTech or Stanford University.
“(Piney Woods School) taught me a lot about manners and how to respect. When I first came down here, I did not say yes ma’am or no ma’am or yes sir, no sir,” Clark said. “They gave me a better work ethic because I was lazy when I was in California. My mom would ask me to clean up the house, and I wouldn’t want to do it. We used to go at it.”
The senior also credits the school for giving him a wealth of opportunities that he would not have had access to had he stayed in California, where his education options weren’t great. The school was scheduled to take the students on a trip to Washington, D.C., for youth leadership, but the pandemic happened.
“Being at Piney Woods just taught me that I don’t have to be close to my home to have friends and family that really care for me,” Clark said.
111 Years and Counting
In 1907, Laurence C. Jones graduated from the University of Iowa, a rarity during that time for a Black man. Jones travelled to Mississippi to start a school, but had little success at the time. He was sitting on a fallen log, with plans to journey north, when someone approached him with the desire to learn how to read.
That’s when the Piney Woods School began.
“The remnants of those initial grounds are still here on our campus,” Piney Woods School President Will Crossley told the Mississippi Press Free. “An African American who owned property in this area had an old sheep shed which he donated to the school. It became the first home of our founder and became the first schoolhouse and boarding house of the school. That log-cabin sheep shed structure is still here on our campus today.”
The Piney Woods School is a boarding school 20 miles from Jackson near Highway 49. The school has been open for 111 years and teaches eighth through 12th grades. The school sits on 2,000 acres of land, which include a 250-acre demonstration farm for livestock and organic gardening, five dorms, a barn, a dining hall and administration buildings, the president said.
“Our student body comes from Mississippi, around the country and around the world. In any given year, there are typically over 20 states represented here. We have students from international countries, such as the Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda,” he said.
‘We Do Have a Waiting List’
Almost every student who attends Piney Woods School qualifies for some form of a scholarship, Crossley said. They run a financial analysis based on parental income. Some students qualify for a full ride, while others attend on a smaller scholarship.
“During most of my tenure, we stay around 100 students because that’s all we’ve been able to afford from a scholarship standpoint. We do have a waiting list. If we can raise more money for scholarships, we can invite those students to come to school,” he said.
The school in rural Rankin County can hold up to 250 students, and it is hoping to fill those spots with their “Black American Values in Action: A Virtual Fundraiser for The Piney Woods School” on Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. The fundraiser, which will take place on Zoom, will feature stories from students and alumni, as well as a story of how the school got started, the president said.
“I think it’s a great idea because not all students are going to have the resources or money that a lot of people have,” senior Kamau Clark said.
Crossley said he normally spends his time going out and telling Piney Woods’ story and asking people if they’d like to sponsor a student. But the pandemic has put a stop to in-person visits, so the fundraiser offers an easier and safer way to raise money and reach the masses, he said.
“We are attempting to raise $500,000 between now and Sept. 30. That will allow us to begin to fill some of those seats that are currently waiting to be filled. We can establish more scholarships for those students,” he said.
The school has already received a $20,000 gift from a foundation, as well as support from Robert L. Woodson Sr. and the Woodson Center in Washington, D.C., the president added. The school is hoping to give scholarships to students still on the waiting list, and those students will be able to start as early as January.
A Safe Haven for Young People
COVID-19 has made in-person schooling difficult. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 115 teachers and faculty and 253 students have tested positive for the virus during the week of Sept. 7 through Sept. 11.
Earlier this summer, college institutions such as Alcorn State University and Jackson State University faced backlash from their student bodies for their reopening plans. Piney Woods has opened its doors to accept students back on campus for two reasons. For one, some lessons can’t be replicated online, the president said.
“Some of the things we do simply cannot be replicated by a video,” he said. “The things they teach in our residential halls. Organization, time management, preparation and those kinds of things that students need to get into the habit of doing.”
Class sizes at the school hold between eight to 10 students, but some classes are offered via Zoom, Crossley said. The school has put protocols in place to keep the school virus-free, and they’ve also done the necessary testing on staff and students with everyone’s test coming back negative, he said.
The second reason the school has opened back up is because it functions as a safe haven for some students, the president said.
“Many of our students come here because it’s a place where they can really focus on themselves, and they’re learning in a way they may not be able to at home. Some of our students come from a community that may be violent or in some cases, there is no home,” Crossley said.
“I did mature being at this school and I knew I wasn’t going to be in this same predicament if I was still in Los Angeles. I don’t know where I would have been if I was still in Los Angeles,” Clark said.
The president is excited and optimistic that the fundraiser will be a success, especially since there is a demand and interest from families, students and the community to help others, Crossley said.
“From our very beginning, we have never been in the business of turning away students because their families cannot afford a private boarding school education and we hope that that will be our future,” he said.
To donate to the Piney Woods fundraiser, visit www.support.pineywoods.org. To learn more about Piney Woods School or apply for enrollment, visit www.pineywoods.org. To register for the fundraiser, visit www.pineywoodsschool2020fundraiser.org.