Imagine living and learning in a secluded location that is neatly tucked into the rolling hills of a rural, idyllic countryside where special attention was given to Black and brown children to prepare them to get placed at top-tier colleges before going on to a life of all but guaranteed success. A place where a sprawling campus doubles as a classroom and all the surrounding natural elements are your textbooks. A place where instructors look like the students they teach.
Still in disbelief? Don’t be. That’s exactly what’s been happening at the Piney Woods School in Rankin County, Mississippi, where about 150 predominately Black students are enrolled in grades 9-12 annually and held to the highest progressive academic standards at the boarding school. That, of course, is by design, Dr. Will Crossley, Piney Woods’ president, said in a recent phone conversation.
“It’s really a small college campus model,” Crossley, 46, said of Piney Woods during a recent phone conversation while stressing the importance of instilling leadership among an ambitious student body preparing for the future. “We’re empowering young people to be leaders in a technological age,” he said.
Piney Woods has been working to expand its indelible footprint in the area of educating young Black people to put them on a straight and narrow path to success. But even with the amazing results the school has had with its graduates, none of the good work Piney Woods does would be possible without the generous financial donations needed to sustain its impressive operation.
The school’s biggest funding needs are for scholarships, which are awarded every year to “ 100% of our students at some level” Crossley said. The scholarships’ amounts vary depending on parental income, but the “ultimate goal is that we’re not turning away those who could benefit from our program but simply don’t have the resources to afford it,” Crossley added.
Piney Woods aims to raise about $2.5 million each year for its scholarship fund, an investment that more than pays for itself come graduation time, after which “all our young people [are] admitted into colleges and universities every year,” Crossley boasted.
Those admissions come with an average of $3.5 million to $4 million in scholarships for graduating seniors every year. Those graduates come from about 20 states around the country and other parts of the world, including Cameroon, Nigeria, Ethiopia and the Caribbean, making for a “very diverse background and geographical mix of students,” Crossley added.
Tradition is also very much a part of the Piney Woods way, said Crossley while mentioning how founder Laurence Clifton Jones established the school in 1909 to provide vocational training for students.
“We’ve continued to do that work, but there’s a focus on a changing world, a changing education system and having an educational learning program that would be responsive to that,” Crossley said. “As much as Jones empowered young people to be vocational workers in an industrial age, we’re empowering young people to be leaders in a technological age.”
That changing education system is reflected in a number of ways at Piney Woods.
“Instead of a traditional academic approach of memorizing and regurgitating disparate facts, we really focus on helping our young people to think and investigate how they think, so we do more projects and a much more of a problem-based approach to education,” Crossley said. “It’s a big part of our program.”
That approach includes capitalizing on Piney Woods’ lush 65-acre campus, which includes five lakes, as well as about 1,000 acres in renewable timber and wildlife and a 250-acre demonstration farm.
“Our goal is to really leverage all of those 2,000 acres in the learning experience,” Crossley said.
One way Piney Woods is doing that is by placing an emphasis on what Crossley called “social entrepreneurship” via the school’s farm.
“Not only do we consume food from our farm in our dining services, but we also sell organic fruits and vegetables to a local grocery co-op as well as to Whole Foods and to the campus community,” he said.
Students participate from planting to packaging to retail.
Piney Woods also has an ambitious solar project that includes partnering with Tesla as well as the U.S. Department of Energy in hopes of getting students involved in an industry that Crossley said has been projected to be tops in American job growth over the next decade.
“At the same time that our kids will be learning something about science and the en and about the world, they will also be equipping themselves to know more about one of the fastest growing job areas in the country and they will have the value of knowing that they’re being good stewards for themselves and the community,” Crossley said.
With the combination of generous financial support it both receives and supplies, Piney Woods can continue thriving and educating Black and brown students in preparation to successfully enter a college, workforce and society that many times doesn’t mirror their image.
“Through this approach to learning, we’re paying homage to our past but we’re also recognizing that for the future we believe learning is going to be far more experiential, be far more hands-on and far more personal for each and every student,” Crossley said. “It’s an exciting time for us.”
To learn more about Piney Woods and donate to the school, click here.