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Jenice Armstrong: Pine Forge: Quiet miracle

At historically black school, just good isn't good enough

An English class at Pine Forge works on a final exam. (KRISTON J. BETHEL / Staff photographer)
An English class at Pine Forge works on a final exam. (KRISTON J. BETHEL / Staff photographer)Read more

PINE FORGE, Pa. - It can be eerily quiet here. I was struck by the absence of even traffic noise as I pulled onto the secluded, 575-acre campus near Pottstown. Signs saying, "thou shalt not park here" kept me moving as a I got a good look around at one of the last remaining African-American boarding schools in the United States.

The campus was sprawling, more like that of a small college than a high school with barely 200 students. I passed an old stone building called the Manor House, which, according to legend, once housed President George Washington. An administration building sat at the top of the hill.

As I stood, taking it all in, uniformed students wandered by either by themselves or in small groups. It set off a motherly alarm in me.

Where were the guards? Where were the adults making sure that these babies made it to wherever it was they were going?

All that apparent freedom, though, belies a strict school culture based on the teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist church. Student conduct is closely monitored, even down to the food they eat. For instance, students can jones for a Philly cheesesteak all they want, but there's no meat allowed at Pine Forge, only soy or other meat substitutes. In keeping with Seventh-day Adventist tradition, students are fed vegetarian diets - no meat, poultry or seafood. Coffee and other caffeinated products are also prohibited. Vending machines in the girls' and boys' dormitories are stocked with juice instead.

Students, most of whom live on campus, are barred from having their own personal TVs. Public displays of affection are discouraged. Dating is strictly monitored - kissing another student is grounds for suspension and having sex will get you expelled.

Even upperclassmen need parental permission to date, and then they may do so only with both a male and a female chaperone to supervise. According to the student handbook, "sexual immorality in all its forms" is grounds for expulsion, including premarital sex and homosexuality.

Instead of a traditional prom with all its excesses, each year the school throws a fancy dinner for juniors and seniors. Dress codes are strict and students aren't allowed to wear earrings, bracelets or necklaces. Twice-daily church services are mandatory.

Clearly, this school isn't for everyone. The atmosphere at Pine Forge is restrictive, and some might also argue rigid and repressive. It's not an institution that values individual freedom as much as it does building the church's version of strong Christian character, as well as scholarship.

Parents pay a high price for their students' to go to Pine Forge - annual tuition is $17,000 a year.

For the most part, in the 64 years of the school's existence, the school has gone about the business of education without much outreach beyond the church's estimated 16 million members. That has changed now that the school faces a much-needed $15 million capital improvement project and needs outside benefactors to finance some much-needed facility upgrades.

"Now it's reaching out to others, and I'm glad for that transition, that growth - I think it has so much to offer all students," said actor-musician Clifton Davis, the school's most famous graduate. "Our young people today have nothing. They have gangs. They have loyalties that are misplaced and values that are ill conceived. I think there are moral values [taught at Pine Forge] that can transform lives."

Davis, himself, was an at-risk 13-year-old when his mother, a nurse, enrolled him at Pine Forge in 1959. An incident with him and a friend who'd stolen a motorboat helped convince her. At first, Davis, who would go on to achieve fame on Broadway and TV, was terrified at being so far away from his home on Long Island, N.Y., but he fell hard for his new rural surroundings.

"What made it special was the people who assisted us and who cared for us," said Davis, who graduated in 1963 in the same class as Pine Forge headmistress Cynthia Poole-Gibson. "Those people were extraordinary in their compassion, and in their love. They were faithful Christian people who loved us kids and nurtured us . . . and who mentored us all the way through."

Surprisingly few of the school's students are from Philly, instead hailing from throughout the United States and the Caribbean. Many are the offspring of Pine Forge graduates. Senior Brielyn Sampson, who graduates Sunday, is the 23rd member of her family to attend. She moved to Pine Forge to flee all the drinking and the sexual activity at her former North Carolina school. "The influences in the school I attended were so strong and I was considered an oddball," she said. "There weren't people like me. Everything was about sex and drugs."

Raynald Lewis, 17, also a graduating senior, followed his dad to Pine Forge.

"Academics are very tough here - they push you to the limit," said Raynald, who wants to be an aerospace engineer. "Like if you're doing a project or something, they want you to go above and beyond - not the standard. The standard is minimum to them. I had a math project one time. I did all the requirements and I got a B. The reason why I got a B was because I met the standard. If wanted an A, I had to go above and beyond to actually get that A. It's not that I did anything wrong. It's just that I had to push a little bit more."

At Pine Forge, administrators told me that the smart kids don't get harassed for excelling academically, which I found hard to believe given today's culture. But at an honors dinner last week, the kids did seem supportive of each other, applauding as the honor-roll members were announced.

"These guys have set it up where you are a hero if you do well," said boys' Dean Russell Paterson, who describes himself as "The Pastor from Hell with a Story to Tell." "They encourage one another. It's peer pressure from the other side. It's peer pressure in moving kids forward. Peer pressure to complete homework assignments. Peer pressure to be respectful to staffers."

Paterson, a former drug and alcohol abuser who has made a career of working with incarcerated juveniles, lives in the boys' dormitory where he keeps watch over his charges. Students who don't keep up their grades are barred from leaving campus for field trips to King of Prussia Mall or Chuck E. Cheese. This year's senior class is in St. Lucia on a school trip. Chris Fielder, who put four of his own children through Pine Forge, told me, "What we say to our kids is, these parents are paying $17,000 a year and they didn't send their kids up here to get a D or an F."

Sounds like good motivation to me.