PINEY WOODS, Miss.—"Those who think they can't are usually right," reads a sign in the grass outside the girls' dormitory at Piney Woods Country Life School. "Success Depends Upon Yourself" is carved into a stone in the gazebo. A few feet away, the Latin phrase "Labor Omnia Vincit" is carved onto a concrete ledge: Work Conquers All.
Motivational quotes like these are scattered throughout the 2,000-acre boarding school in rural Mississippi. They are the kinds of messages students get from the moment their alarms go off at 5:30 in the morning until lights-out at 10 pm.
The Piney Woods Country Life School is America's largest historically black boarding school, and one of the few remaining, with a sprawling campus of pine trees and rolling farmland just 20 miles south of Jackson. It opened in 1909 as the vision of an educated African American man from St. Louis who felt a desire to teach the illiterate children of freed slaves how to farm and read. In the face of hunger, poverty, and lynching threats, Dr. Laurence Jones and his wife fought to keep the school open in the segregated South.
Now, more than 100 years later, the vocational agriculture school has transformed into a rigorous, college-prep high school for low-income African American students from across the United States.
Expectations at Piney Woods are high, and so is the pressure. Graduating is a given—every student here is expected to go to college. It doesn't matter if they come from a ghetto in the Bronx or the suburbs of Detroit. Some 97 percent of students who graduated from Piney Woods last year got into schools such as Spelman College in Atlanta and Kings College in Pennsylvania.