While tens of thousands of children in public and private schools nationwide were prevented from listening to President Barack Obama's televised pep talk two weeks ago, students at the Piney Woods School in Mississippi were required to listen and write an essay about what the talk meant to them.
Many said they felt that the president was speaking to them "personally." Others said they were "inspired" and would dedicate themselves to doing their "very best."
These words of the president carried special meaning for the students: "I've talked a lot about your government's responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren't working where students aren't getting the opportunities they deserve. But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed."
They were special words because they reflect the core philosophy of Piney Woods, a place that has for 100 years inspired thousands of African-American youngsters, along with a modest number of those of other races and ethnicities, to succeed against the odds.
Founded in 1909 for the children of poor sharecroppers, Piney Woods is a private, coeducational college preparatory boarding school 21 miles southwest of Jackson. It has 172 students in ninth through 12th grade from cities throughout the United States, Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. The campus is mostly self-sufficient. It has a federal post office, a security force, a working farm, intramural sports teams, athletic fields, a gym, a health clinic, a chapel, dormitories, a cafeteria, faculty housing, an amphitheater and a library with the latest high-tech equipment.
Federal officials were so impressed with Piney Woods' achievements they approved it as the nation's first AmeriCorps high school, where seniors who qualify receive a $1,250 college scholarship after they complete 450 hours of community service that includes the Katrina Relief Project, the American Red Cross Blood Drive and afterschool tutoring in the local community.
Consistently over the years, 98 percent of the school's students enroll in and graduate from some of the nation's most prestigious universities and colleges. When I visited the campus three weeks ago, several students recited one of their cherished slogans: "It's not if you're going to college. It's where you're going to college."
Reginald Nichols, only the school's fourth president in a century, is the embodiment of his predecessors. His is a no-nonsense approach to education. He told me that he rejects the stubborn myths that poor minority children, especially blacks, inherently have little chance of academic success. Operating from a back-to-basics philosophy, Nichols and his faculty of 17 certified teachers insist on hard work and appropriate behavior, including politeness and courtesy. Students wear uniforms on school days, and they are required to study at least two hours every night.
Nichols rejects all excuse-making and victimization, creating what he calls a "culture of excellence where students celebrate success and leadership and service." His responsibility, he said, is to educate, train and equip students to "enter the world."
"We lay down the rules upfront," he said. "You must know the boundaries. There's zero-tolerance for certain behavior. This is life. Piney Woods takes kids out of their old comfort zones."
Besides raising money to keep the doors open, one of Nichols' toughest jobs, both on and off campus, especially in the media, has been removing the "at-risk stigma" associated with the school. Piney Woods is not a place of last resort where juvenile judges send troubled black children, he said. To the contrary, it is a place where intelligent, decent kids come to be challenged. The "at-risk" label, he said, suggests an expectation of failure, which he detests.
Parental involvement, monetarily and otherwise, is a major part of Piney Woods' success.
"All parents have to pay something," Nichols said. "They must have an investment, and they should see their investment. During commencement, every parent has to go on stage and tell their children they care about them and are proud of them. The parents walk across the stage with their kids - a lot of tears."
While academic achievement underpins Piney Woods' mission, several students told me that they benefit just as much from what teachers and administrators refer to as "character-building."
"A lot of students who came here with me are not the same people they were," said junior Cheyenne Bridgewater, 16, from Jackson, Miss., who wants to attend Spelman College. "You become a better person at Piney Woods. You meet different people who influence you, especially your teachers and friends. Since being here, I'm a more respectful, more understanding, a more polite person. I try to listen to what other people are saying instead of just thinking about myself. I've become less selfish. I've become more grateful."
Piney Woods is a success story that can be replicated everywhere else in the nation with the leadership of smart and caring adults, involved parents and children willing to fulfill their responsibilities.