By: Judykay Jefferson
Author’s note: Piney Woods School is my happy place. I worked there when now president, Will Crossley, was a student and have had the pleasure of watching his journey back to lead his alma mater, driven by vision, innovation, and a commitment to perpetuate Piney Woods’s legacy of excellence.
Taking the left off Hwy 49 in Rankin County, Mississippi, just 12 hours before the Mississippi Delta would be devastated by the worst tornado in the state’s history, I had that feeling of coming home. From the highway, extraordinarily little had changed about the entrance to Piney Woods School. To my right, there were hundreds of acres of timber land. To my left, were pastures with grazing cattle and catfish ponds. Driving to the Administration building, where I worked in the 1990s, I passed the lake, the pavilion, and the rock garden. I saw uniformed students, quietly moving around campus, speaking as I passed. The buildings are old, but solid. It felt safe, welcoming, and mysterious. In late March, Mississippi was in full springtime mode. The trees were full, the grass, lush. I could not wait to see it all.
Piney Woods School (PWS) is rooted in the belief that education is the key to a better life. Founded in 1909 by Laurence C. Jones, a Missouri native educated at the State University of Iowa, a teacher at the Utica Institute in Hinds County (Mississippi), PWS began with one teacher sitting on a log teaching one student. In rural, segregated Mississippi, children, black and white, were considered farm labor whose education was generally subordinate to their duties to family farm. In its inception, Jones was committed to the school “meeting the needs of the people where they were and helping them to raise their economic level.” Under the leadership of President Will Crossley, not much has changed about that mission.
A large part of PWS’s living legacy is the many buildings on campus that were constructed by students, using brick they made. Brick making and laying were among the foundational skills taught at PWS. While standing in the gym/auditorium (a unique multi-purpose structure whose stage actually serves as the basketball court), President Crossley explained that a requirement of graduation for each student was to present at commencement an item they made. While standing in that space, President Crossley points to the original, student-made bricks that continue to support the structure. Like most every element of PWS, living history serves as not only the inspiration, but a daily reminder of the true mission of Piney Woods: educating the head, heart, and hands of students while instilling freedom and responsibility.
“The core of this place is love. It is the process of affirming every young person that comes to this campus,” President Crossley explained. “There is the abiding purpose of loving one’s neighbor.”
It is more than hyperbole to say, “You can almost feel it in the air.” When asked what of PWS’s history he would want to preserve, Crossley replied, “The core of who we are remains. We say Piney Woods prepares leaders for tomorrow’s challenges by empowering learners. That is something we have always done. We do that by developing the hands, the head, and the heart. I think that still matters. Our challenge is how do we insure that learning continues to be experienced, not simply something where we sit in neatly lined desks, facing the lecturer, but something we go out and discover; we experience and discover learning. Learning that sticks are the things that people discover.
As to what we want to change, Crossley recalls a discussion with an architect who posed a question, “What is the 21st century version of making a brick? What does that look like for young people who are on Instagram and TikTok?” Crossley stated, “We are continuing to explore how we change our work so we stay aligned with those things we want to preserve, but we empower young people to live that out in today’s world. The core difference takes us back to our founding in this regard. When I was a student, Piney Woods was a strong discipline kind of place. You went where you were told to go; you did what you were told to do, as are most educational institutions in this country in keeping with the factory model of learning, (The students) don’t know anything so I am going to tell you what you need to know and all I want you to do is regurgitate back to me on the exam. I think shifting and changing that perspective has been extremely important. Reflecting on my time here, I think we have succeeded in changing that paradigm.”
“It is not a top-down approach between a faculty person and a young scholar but rather it is a cooperative approach in which we learn together. Yes, the young people are learning from us, but we are also learning from them, even if that is how to teach someone who may be different from us; even if that is how to appreciate the experience they may have had even at the age of 14 or 15 years old. This notion of being partners in the discovery experience of learning is different, but, I think it is where we should be. In some ways, it is where we started when Laurence Jones started in 1909 that the people who were learning were also the people doing some of the work. They were the people who were doing the planting, so they all had something to eat. They were partners in that process of learning and experiencing. Hopefully, we will be able to incorporate a partnered model in leadership as well.”
“I’d like to get to the place where I can give them the microphone and sit down. We must allow our young people to demonstrate who they are and who they are becoming, and being willing to step back from the spotlight such that they can shine. We must be open to learning from them in a way that empowers them. Laurence Jones is quoted as saying to his students in 1910, ‘You have come here for freedom; not from the kind of slavery your parents endured, but freedom from the slavery of the ignorance of your mind.’ As a student, I had a hard time melding the notion of freedom with my experience of Piney Woods.”
“In this role, I have a new found appreciation for why freedom runs fundamentally to who we are. I tell students that I am not going to make them do anything. They are free to choose, but freedom is not free. It requires responsibility and so we talk a lot here about the dual roles of freedom and responsibility. The more responsible one is, the freer one becomes. Laurence Jones was free to come and try to start this space. The whole point was to increase the freedoms of people who looked like him; people who were excluded, or neglected, or marginalized. We are still a space of empowering undervalued people of great, great potential.”
Crossley expands on the concept of freedom: “We cannot create a space of freedom for these young people until I can feel a sense of freedom myself. If I am bound up and wrapped up on making sure the students walk in a straight line, if I am stuck on that, it is going to be hard for me to create that space of freedom for them. It starts with us. We also have to live in our freedom. I think Nina Simone said it best. When asked by a reporter her definition of freedom she said, after a moment of thought, ‘No fear.’”
That evocative thought of life without fear took a moment of recovery for Crossley as he continued. “In 1909, Laurence Jones thought, they may have been lynching people for educating people of color, but I am not going to live with that fear.”
President Crossley recalls that someone said that the good thing about Piney Woods is that it is tucked away from the world. Crossley believes that there is no better place for students to be free. “What better space could we be in to continue to learn? I have learned about myself and I matured greatly through this experience. I realize now that all the things that I do, including this job and the boards on which I sit, are merely a representation of who I am. Being the president of Piney Woods is not who I am. It just happens that I get to live out who I am as president of Piney Woods. I only want to do things that embody who I am and the impact I want to have in the world.”
To maintain the space, it takes money. As President, Crossley devotes a good part of everyday to raising money. Piney Woods is a privately funded school, receiving no federal, state, or local government funding. 44% of funding comes from gifts and donations with the remainder made up from room, board, and student fees, endowment income, and other revenue. Crossley estimates upwards of 60% of his time is devoted to gathering resources. Piney Woods enjoys the support of corporations such as Microsoft’s TEALS program whose mission is to provide coding training to every secondary school in the nation. “We are doing work with Brown University funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation. They are looking at research of 5 county central MS area. Led by Mississippi native Dr. Erica Walker, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Brown University
School of Public Health, Piney Woods students and faculty will measure and model air pollution, noise pollution, water quality in the Jackson (MS) Metro area. We have received support for specific programs from USDA Natural Research Conservation Service and Agricultural Marketing. USDA is contributing to work on our farm. We have a grant from USDA and we are partnering with Alcorn State University on agricultural career exploration. The National Center for Appropriate Technology does energy efficiency and sustainable agriculture work throughout the nation. We are partnering with the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Together with our students, they are looking at ways Piney Woods can address food insecurity in the local area by leveraging our farm and our organic gardens to bring more healthy food to the local markets. These partnerships expose our students to a new way of looking at the world. When you take a student from rural Mississippi and bring them to Piney Woods, it is eye-opening. For the last nine years, we have partnered with the St. Albans School of Public Service in DC. We have had students spending the summer there. During their stay, they get a chance to tour Congress, an ambassador’s residence, and meet elected officials at the highest levels of government. They sponsor two of our young people.”
And speaking of the farm. Piney Woods School sits on a 2,000 acre campus that includes a 200 acre demonstration farm. Crossley says, “The farm is everything. If I could only keep one thing, it would be the farm. The farm is important not just because we actually grow food that we eat: corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, and potatoes. We have cattle now, and we are getting back into chickens soon. The farm is a unique place. It is where you build things. It is where you imagine things. It is where you cultivate things. It is a quintessential entrepreneurial playground. The farm matters from a real-life standpoint of what we are building and for the symbolic value of we are doing. Laurence Jones said, ‘This work is about cultivating an orchard of humanity.’ The land is the most important thing we have. It is our connection to the land that is a part of the experience. The farm lives in us.”
The Piney Woods School www.pineywoods.org