“A log, a cedar tree for shade, a sheep-shed for a home, a dream, a vision, a resistless urge.”
-- Laurence Clifton Jones
The mission of The Piney Woods School is to provide excellence in education within a Christian community through creation of an exceptional academic model which supports the tenet that all students can learn, develop a strong work ethic, and lead extraordinary lives through academic achievement and responsible citizenship, but may not have the opportunity to do so for financial or other reasons.
In the spring of 1909, a young black man came to a desperately poor section of Mississippi, located approximately 21 miles southeast of Jackson, known as the piney woods. Born in St. Joseph, Missouri, and educated at the University of Iowa, where he graduated in 1907, Dr. Laurence C. Jones saw the need for schooling among poor blacks in rural Rankin County. He made the acquaintance of both blacks and whites in the piney woods area and finally won their confidence. His task was not easy. He was almost lynched by a group of angry white men who thought he was preaching against white people. By the grace of God, he survived the rope.
Dr. Jones started The Piney Woods School with one student; but soon others came, young and old alike, with only a burning desire to learn. The people in the area saw the earnestness and honesty of the young teacher. They contributed lumber, nails, and small amounts of goods and money to the effort.
From the beginning, The Piney Woods School’s curriculum consisted of vocational subjects along with the three “R’s.” Dr. Jones felt that many of his students would not go on to higher education and must be prepared to earn a living at a useful trade.
In May 1913, at the end of its fifth year, the school received a charter from the governor of Mississippi. Many teachers, black and white, joined the staff and worked for little or no salary as the school endeavored to train teachers for the State Department of Education and to teach handicapped and blind children. In 1950, through the influence of Helen Keller, a special school for the blind was established, and the Piney Woods blind students were transferred to that institution.
Love. Piney Woods cannot exist without love, and without a clear understanding of the ways, it binds us all together. It is love—for oneself, for one another, and then, eventually, for one’s own unique learning journey – that undergirds all of our efforts to help young people find their footing, their calling, and their voice. And it is the legacy of that love that keeps us connected to one another across the generations – and expands our community to literally stretch across the world.
As a residential community of adults and young people, and as a vibrant alumni network of scholar-activists, we are more than a school. We are a family. And so whether our students come to us from the protective cocoon of a loving family, or the chaotic swirl of an unsafe environment, our primary job is to create a campus culture in which all people feel that they have voice, value and visibility, and where everyone’s daily experiences are rich with ritualistic reminders of why this is the place they belong.
This foundation has always been part of who we have been at Piney Woods. It will remain central to who we become.
Integrity. To fulfill our goal of helping young people learn what it means to pursue lives of purpose, we must orient them not merely to the journey within; to a deep understanding of ones’ self, one’s passion, and one’s purpose - but also to the journey without: to the world beyond these piney woods, and to the task of using one’s talents in the service of creating a more just and equitable world.
This is why everything we do here must have an eye towards justice: socially, in order to commit to ensuring equality among people: environmentally, in order to commit to protecting the needs of the natural world; and spiritually, in order to commit to honoring each person’s liberty of faith.
This, too, is what it means to educate for the head, the heart and the hands. This, too, is what the world will come to recognize as a “Piney Woods graduate.”
Faith. What is the contemporary calling of a Christian school that is committed to preparing young people for a complex, multiracial world? And what is the result of a long-term vision in which a core set of design drivers shape every decision at Piney Woods – from residential buildings to staff recruitment to course curricula?
We believe that it will be an enduring culture of enlightenment, and a community in which all structures and systems are intentionally designed in order to facilitate both individual fulfillment, Christian charity, and collective harmony. To get there, we must be systemic in the way we understand the interplay between several unlikely pairs: School and Community. Individual and group. Inside and outside. Think and do. Push and Project.
Here, we are taught to love ourselves and one another. Here, we are given the freedom to name what drives us, and what we wish to commit our life’s work towards achieving. Here, we are taught about God’s great power, and shown how to channel the great power that resides within each of us. Here, we are put in a position to discover the “resistless urge” that will guide each of us throughout our adult lives.
This is what it means to be a part of the Piney Woods School. This is the vision that will animate our next one hundred years.
Excellence. Currently, Piney Woods has a campus of nearly 2,000 acres, most of which don’t factor into the daily experiences of our students.
In the future, we have a different vision – one in which the entire campus is our classroom, and one where the rigor of our intellectual pursuits is augmented by the vigor of our physical exploration.
We believe, as Maria Montessori did, that “the human hand allows the mind to reveal itself.”And so we envision a future in which our students’ hands are doing much more than holding a pencil, or taking notes; they are digging, testing, sculpting, building, and revealing. And we envision a campus-wide culture in which the boundary between class and campus, student and adult, and inside and outside is not on of division, but exploration.
At Piney Woods, we’re not merely students of the past. We’re also scientists of the future – and the lands will be our labs.
Empowerment. Understanding what it means to be free is the amount the greatest riddles any of us will face in our lives. Yet rarely in school settings do we all allow and equip young people to experience freedom in any meaningful way. The schedule is packed. The bell is about to ring. The campus is largely off limits. Equally important, however, is how rarely we ask that any freedom and responsibility, our task as adults is not merely to give young people more autonomy – although that’s apart of it. Instead, we must create a culture in which conscience is the central objective of all learning experiences.
For us, freedom cannot mean merely granting young people the space to say whatever they want to say, or go wherever they want to go. For us, the task is ensuring that our graduates have the space to consider, “Of all the things I can say and do, what must I say? What must I do?” This is the primary journey our school must provide for its students: the journey within.
This is what we are intentionally designing to make room for. This is the indelible mark of a successful Piney Woods graduate.