As we move along our path of developing the Jay N. Darling Institute at Drake University, we would like to share with you some of the people, places, and treasures that come our way in the most serendipitous manner!
“I recently had the opportunity to research my Darling archives, his Legacy as well as his educational impact. A newsletter from The Piney Woods School caused me to pause and reach out to this Mississippi Boarding School. After several weeks of further research, telephone calls, scanning books, listening to archivist Kay Garrett, and connecting with President Will Crossley…. well, the rest is a story which continues to unfold with another Jay N. Darling and Gardner Cowles footprint and one which inspires and honors Dr. Laurence Jones, his Iowa roots, and young people across the nation and beyond!”
A Brief History of The Piney Woods School
Kay Weathersby Garrett
In 1959, in his 80th year, Jay Norwood Darling traveled from his retirement home in Florida to his old home in Des Moines to visit family and friends. Along the way, he and his long-time chauffeur made a mysterious detour through rural Mississippi to tour a small boarding school. This is the story of the mission that inspired that detour.
In the early 20th century, an African American man name Laurence Clifton Jones was working as a porter at the Pilgrim Hotel in Marshalltown, Iowa. It is likely that this is where he met Gardner Gordon Cowles, publisher of the Des Moines Register and Tribune. In 1903, Laurence C. Jones became the first African American to graduate from Marshalltown High School. He attended the State University of Iowa where he heard a commencement address delivered by Dr. George E. McLean, President of the university, that highlighted the concept of noblesse oblige [to whom much is given, much is expected] and that changed the trajectory of his life.
Following this directive led Laurence to the Deep South to establish a school for the children of ex-slaves. His deep Christian faith allowed him to overcome tremendous obstacles, including storms, fires, and racism. At one point, he was speaking at a church when the Ku Klux Klan arrived and accused him of fomenting insurrection. With the rope around his neck, Laurence made an impassioned plea—not for his life, but for the education of African American children. So charismatic was his personality that Laurence escaped the lynching. More remarkable still, everyone present, Black and White, contributed money to build what became The Piney Woods School.
The school was built through the generosity of its first donors, many of whom were Iowans. (Fred Maytag was one of them, and a photo from circa 1925 shows Piney Woods students using Maytag washers.) Their support continued throughout the years, culminating in 1941 in the erection of Iowa Hall, a beautiful three-story building that has gone through several iterations. Gardner Gordon Cowles, Harvey Ingham (editor of the Tribune), and Jay Norwood Darling were the first to present Laurence Jones with $100 checks to facilitate his work. Later Mr. Cowles opened the columns of the newspaper to allow Laurence to share the school’s mission, and Darling utilized his talents to publicize the story. The 1959 visit was not Mr. Darling’s first time on the Piney Woods campus. Although we can’t be sure, we can surmise that he made several trips to Mississippi in the early part of the twentieth century when famous donors would frequently stop by to offer support to what was then a perilous enterprise.
No doubt Darling’s interest in the school was fueled by its progressive stewardship of natural resources and the use of the school’s 2,000 acres of lakes, forest, and pastureland to teach the “head, heart, and hands” of each child who entered the gates. He could see that children learned a reverence for the natural world and the importance of stewardship of resources.
The school came to be a self-sufficient community of learners, and the student body included White, Chinese, Hispanic, and Native American children. For years, Laurence Jones and his wife, Grace, raised funds for the school by touring with its musical student groups. In 2011, the Smithsonian Institution honored The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a group that got its start at Piney Woods, as the “first integrated all-women’s jazz band.” Other musical legends beginning their musical careers at the school included blues artist Sam Myers, the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and the Cotton Blossom Singers. The Mississippi Blues Trail commemorated Piney Woods’s contributions to American music with a trail marker in 2008.
A school for blind children on campus pioneered teaching techniques that, even today, seem innovative: tramping through the forest, feeling the bark of trees and identifying birdsong. Piney Woods became the first school in the South to teach Braille, and blind students learned a trade so that they could support themselves instead of being warehoused in institutions. Today, you can still see some of the intricately woven baskets created by these students. In 1945, Helen Keller visited Piney Woods and was instrumental in convincing the legislature to open a state-funded school for the blind in Mississippi.
Today, the school has evolved into a modern 21st century education community for students (grades 8 through 12) from across the nation and points over the globe. Young people come to Piney Woods to identify and explore their passions in a community where academic success is celebrated and intellectual curiosity is encouraged. Where shared meals, daily devotionals, and collaborative projects unite faculty, staff, and students in a family of learners. In this living/learning environment classes are not confined by the four walls of the classroom. Those same forests, gardens, lakes, and fields Mr. Darling observed serve as laboratories for young people who seek empowerment through a paradigm rooted in a respect for the past and a reverence for the natural world.
The school is still taking a pioneering approach to the future of learning. Project-based learning rises organically out of the pioneering learning technique proven effective through 111 years of use at The Piney Woods School and is now enhanced by the power of today’s technology. In the early days, experiential learning could mean fashioning bricks to build a classroom or designing and building a rock garden amphitheater with a renowned French architect. Today, students take part in initiatives that fund a solar array on campus (including creating a film documenting the need, launching a GoFundMe page, and helping install the panels). They collaborate with a team of international designers to build faculty housing. They work with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), the Alliance for Sustainable Farms, and Piney Woods staff to plan, plant, and cultivate a Demonstration Farm that replaces cafeteria fare with healthy, local produce and addresses food inequities and obesity-related disease in our local community.
Piney Woods is poised to serve as a global model of 21st-century teaching and learning for every young person, everywhere. The Piney Woods vision for the future is one in which students’ hands are doing much more than holding a pencil, or taking notes; they are digging, testing, sculpting, building, and revealing. It’s a campus-wide culture in which the boundary between class and campus, student and adult, inside and outside, and school and community is not one of division, but of exploration.
These methods work. Each year, 98 percent of graduating seniors from The Piney Woods School go on to enroll in some of the most prestigious colleges in the nation. Furthermore, these young people remain in college at twice the national average of other high poverty students, graduate, and return to their communities across the nation as agents of positive change.
Those remarkable statistics are just the beginning. Integrity, character, empathy—these are more than just words at Piney Woods. The school promotes entrepreneurial opportunities for students, but in a way that fosters ethical and sustainable land use, fair business practices, health benefits, and value for the community at large. Whether addressing health concerns in our community, the inequality of food distribution in Mississippi, or the survival of our planet, Piney Woods emphasizes utilizing one’s talents in the service of creating a more just, more equitable world.
This is the vision glimpsed by Jay Norwood Darling in the earliest years of the 20th century. This is the mission that so many Iowans embraced when they gave so generously to help fund the school and when they built Iowa Hall. This is what forever makes Iowa a part of the remarkable story of The Piney Woods School.
Today, The Piney Woods School is more relevant than ever. Millions of kids in the United States—especially children of color and children from low-income communities—face ongoing barriers to receiving the educational resources they need and the safe environment that allows them to learn. Piney Woods is for students whose intrinsic potential is real but whose success has been deterred due to financial, familial, or environmental factors. COVID-19 has made life even more difficult for these children. Many of their parents are on the front lines and/or have faced job loss or reduction in wages. Some on our waiting list have even lost one or both parents to the virus.
While many schools depend upon tuition to generate support, our community of students counts on the generosity of friends (like those early donors from Iowa) who believe in the mission. That support keeps our vision centered on the traditional values (a strong work ethic, self-discipline, and personal responsibility) that have sustained our students for generations while focusing on a future that could transform education. However, the current pandemic threatens to erode donor support from foundations and long-term donors who are themselves facing an uncertain future. This year, for the first time in its history, the school is faced with the possibility of turning away young people.