Piney Woods: An Academic Oasis

<B>Morley Safer</B> Revisits An Alternative School In Rural Mississippi, 12 Years Later

This story is about the education of some inner city kids. If you think it means a familiar tale of drugs, guns and failure, you'll be surprised.

As Correspondent Morley Safer first reported back in 1992, there is a school that offers an alternative, an academic oasis in rural Mississippi that is the polar opposite of what so many inner-city public schools have become. It offers education and something else.

At the Piney Woods Country Life School, an all-black boarding school in rural Mississippi, most of the pupils are from poor, single-parent homes. Many come from the toughest neighborhoods in the country.

"Around my neighborhood, it's gunshots, and that's all you hear. I'm totally aware as soon as I get off that plane, I know, 'Yeah, this is New York. I'm home,'" says Quiahmah, who's from Brooklyn, N.Y. "It was rough. But here it's quiet, nice, settled. You know, you don't have to think about, 'Oh, gee, I'm going to school today, I hope I don't get shot.'"

Piney Woods is about as no-nonsense as education gets in this country. The school was started at the turn of the century by a black educator to provide basic education for the children of field hands. To get into Piney Woods, a student must have a C average. Almost 90 percent of them are on some kind of scholarship. No one is turned away because of money; the school raises it from charitable foundations, corporations and from individuals. The school president is Dr. Charles Beady, who took the basics, upgraded them and toughened them.

The ethic is the work ethic; the discipline, boot camp. Drugs and guns are absent. The kids, 300 boarders, are present and accounted for. These are kids whom the sociologists describe as "at risk," meaning they are likely to drop out and get pregnant.

"The programs that we put together are intended to say to the young person that you can be successful, you're just as bright as anybody else," says Beady. "That your primary purpose for being here is to get yourself a good education. And our primary purpose for being here is to make sure that happens."

And it does happen. Standards are high; grades are monitored weekly. More than 90 percent of Piney Woods graduates go on to college, to small state schools, to the Ivy League. Everybody at Piney Woods must work at least 10 hours a week in a variety of jobs on the campus. The discipline is all about enabling these kids to take control of their lives. There are rules for everything. There's a dress code, a makeup code, a hair code.

"We have a book of rules. How to become a Piney Woods student, and how to become an ex-Piney Woods student. Pregnancy and impregnation is one of them," says Beady.

"But you threw a girl out, a girl who became pregnant, just four weeks before graduation," says Safer.

"I didn't throw anybody out," says Beady. "If she had abided by the rules and regulations, she'd still be a Piney Woods student."

"That seems tough," says Safer. "I mean, why not let her graduate and at least get the benefit of having been here?"

"My philosophy has always been the greatest good for the greatest number, and I agonize often over the fact that some of our young people have to leave," says Beady. "But I can't afford to let one person stop the forward progress of the Piney Woods Country Life School and what we're all about."

It's easy for a visitor to this idyllic campus to forget the realities of the lives of so many of these children, the ones who have to steel themselves when it's time to go home.