Excellence in education — in Black education — is in great abundance at Pine Forge Academy. At a time when the African-American community expresses its concern about the education of its children and their future development, there is a model of success in a private boarding school in Pennsylvania. And this success story has been in operation for decades, producing Black leaders and change agents in the community.
Pine Forge Academy is a participant in Atlanta Black Star’s Better School Better World Challenge, a campaign in which anyone including Black-owned businesses challenge each other to donate to Black educational institutions that are incubators and training grounds for the leaders of the future. The campaign is an initiative of the Black Star Economic Alliance (BSEA).
Founded in the 1940s by a group of preachers, Pine Forge Academy is located on 575 acres of land near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, on what was once an Underground Railroad depot. First known as the Pine Forge Institute, the school began with a class of 90 pioneer students, and was envisioned as a place where Black students could attend high school without all of the racial issues found in the South. The co-educational Seventh-day Adventist boarding school “is committed to providing a Christ-centered curriculum in a safe, caring environment, to prepare students spiritually, intellectually, physically, and socially for service to God and man,” and it boasts a 98 percent college attendance rate.
“We’re 70 years in, so that in and of itself speaks volumes on our historical significance. We’re still going,” Kris Fielder, acting principal of Pine Forge Academy, told Atlanta Black Star. “It was started to provide a haven for Black kids from the South and from various places in 1946. I think we’re still significant for the Black community, because not only do we offer academics, but we offer that spiritual element that is critical in an environment that lends itself to good development for our young people,” he added.
Fielder said the school offers a holistic approach, providing a spiritual and academic environment that children need in a challenging environment.
Pine Forge Academy is a unique place.
“We’re like a hidden gem, and many people don’t even realize we exist,” Dr. Leon Thomas, president of the National Pine Forge Academy Alumni Association told Atlanta Black Star. “I consider Pine Forge as a junior HBCU,” he said.
“The impact is great. We just celebrated 70 years of existence. We had our 70th year anniversary celebration in September. And what Pine Forge Academy has done since the doors opened in September of 1946, since then we’ve made basically great strides. During that time, if you recall, the turn of the century around the 1900s there were over 100 Black boarding academies. But now we have four,” Dr. Thomas noted.
During this special year for this important educational institution, the 50th reunion class at Pine Forge Academy honored President Lyndon B. Johnson for his education reform initiative known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Enacted in 1966, the initiative allowed for the federal government to play a more active role in public education on the state and local level. For Pine Forge alumni, ESEA — which was part of Johnson’s War on Poverty — paved the way and opened doors that previously had been shut for them. Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, the oldest daughter of President Johnson, was invited to Pine Forge alumni weekend, where the community thanked her for her father’s legacy.
“There are only four Black boarding academies in North America. What those schools do: Number one it has what I call qualities that you can’t walk on campus and see. They’re intangibles. We create leaders. We create Black men and women who believe in themselves. We have a strong commitment to education, and currently 98 percent of the graduates from Pine Forge go on to college. That’s not over the past few years, but over a period of time,” Thomas said. “We create Black leaders who are not afraid to stand up. When people leave Pine Forge Academy they can compete on every level. We don’t have the greatest buildings or the greatest facilities, but when you talk to Pine Forge alumni, you see a spirit light up in them, because there are things you get there that you can’t get everywhere else. It’s the camaraderie and wanting each student to succeed. We have faculty members who could work anywhere else and make more money but they work at Pine Forge Academy to help them succeed and grow.”
Principal Fielder reflected on the specific benefits of the private boarding school experience on young Black people.
“One of the good things about the boarding experience is they get away from home and learn how to do things on their own. It is a good preparation for college. Students have to learn how to iron, wash clothes. This is a home away from home,” he said. “We really stress the spiritual relationship with Christ because we are a religious institution. We can really proclaim our faith without any inhibitions because we are not public — we are a private school. The spiritual part is important, and they need to learn discipline. When they go home the family members say they really see a change in their child.”
Thomas, who was also a dean and coach at Pine Forge Academy, reflected on some of the many successful alumni of the institution, including actor Clifton Davis; former Pennsylvania Mayor John Street and his brother, former Pennsylvania State Senator Milton Street; and Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Black, Thomas noted, often speaks of how he was not necessarily the best in school academically, but was able to succeed through the intangibles cultivated at Pine Forge, including how to relate and get along with others.
“I’m Doctor Leon Thomas, but when I was in school I wasn’t the greatest academic person in school. They instilled in me that I could,” Dr. Thomas said of the impact the Black boarding school had on his life. “When I left Pine Forge and went to other schools, no matter where anybody else came from, I could compete. We have a history of motivation and helping the Black student have an internal motivation to succeed. What makes Pine Forge great is that it is on the grounds of an iron mill that used to house the Underground Railroad. We instill that pride in students,” Thomas said.
“I can say I wasn’t just a student, but I also taught there for nine years,” he noted. “I have seen students come in, and when they leave it’s almost like they go through a metamorphosis. It’s like a cocoon — they come in as raw students, but when they leave the cocoon they leave like butterflies. We equip them with the ability to fly. I have parents come to us and say: ‘We don’t know what you’ve done for them.’ It is amazing how they have grown from a child to a young adult. They were shy and introverts and now they speak,” Thomas added.
This school with a rich tradition has plans to expand and grow.
“Pine Forge Academy is 70 years strong but it is mostly due to the Adventist community. In order to make it persevere for more than 70 years we need to do more and look beyond that small community, and we are starting to branch out to other businesses to allow it to grow the school,” Dinah Jordan, Development Officer and Special Projects Manager at Pine Forge Academy, told Atlanta Black Star. “We are reaching out but also reaching back. The school used to do a lot of farming and had an apple orchard. The students had a work program where they worked in the community and their payments went to their school tuition bill, and that was a big part of the school’s history. We received a grant from the USDA to redevelop our farm program, and through the EITC and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, we will now be able to engage in business through tax credits,” she noted.
“Our tuition is $20,000 and that is significant for Black families,” Jordan said, noting that “the population we serve are usually single family households from the New Jersey and Delaware-Maryland-Virginia areas. That tuition is a burden, and we would like to support our families with that tuition, so having a stronger development and fundraising effort will help us do that,” she said, announcing a six-month fundraising initiative to refurbish and restore the infrastructure of the school, which hasn’t been tended to in years.
“I think one of the challenges — there are so few left — is economics,” Fielder said. “It is a challenge just for Black families to afford a school like ours. Although we don’t cost as much as other schools, it is a challenge for our constituents,” he noted.
Interim Vice Principal Jaymie Pottinger calls Pine Forge “a game changer.“
“Students have come to Pine Forge Academy and seen their economic status change because of their capacity to learn and serve the wider world,” Pottinger told Atlanta Black Star. “I have seen students’ lives change, students who were failing in other environments, but because of Pine Forge Academy’s investments” they were able to succeed,” he noted.
Pottinger recalled “a student who couldn’t make a 1.5 GPA graduated with 3.0, and his chances were next to none. That sense of pride, that sense of purpose, and I don’t have to subject myself to the stereotype of Black males in this country. I bucked the system and was forced to be placed in a jacket I wasn’t supposed to be in. By changing the students’ mindset and feeling as if they are not inferior is a milestone reached,” he added. “Just being nestled in a community outside of New York was enough to let him know who he was and there were greater things ahead if he was able to accept what was ahead of him.”
“Pine Forge is community focused. We preach to students that what you gain and learn is not just to keep to ourselves but to share with the community,” Thomas offered. “Black professionals haven’t learned to share what we have learned to those who come after us. That’s why we have such a strong alumni presence. Wherever you go, there is usually a Pine Forge person in every state in the U.S. Most states have Pine Forge alumni. We have parents who send their children from all over the country and even internationally for what we have done for students in the past.
“Pine Forge is what I consider a hidden gem in the Black community. What Pine Forge has done for the Black community needs to be put out on a larger scale so that people know,” Thomas said.