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Private Schools: Focus On The Future

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In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington, the African-American educator and writer, dispatched two teenage newlyweds to North Carolina. They transformed a parcel of swampland into a respected private school for blacks that has graduated such notables as the late jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, basketball Hall of Fame member Sam Jones, and Prime Minister of Bermuda John Swann.

Lee, a jazz enthusiast and avid basketball fan, might be the perfect director to tell the school's tale. His production company is interested--but then so are actor Danny Glover and entertainers Bill Cosby and Arsenio Hall.

Ironically, the Laurinburg Institute might not survive long enough to enjoy its moment in the spotlight.

Although black independent schools have surged in popularity in recent years, the 90-year-old institute has not made the leap into the modern era of preparatory schools. Once the flagship black school in the country, it is now so tattered that it works hard just to stay afloat.

One morning earlier this year, an agent from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service called on Frank (Bishop) McDuffie, the school's president. The news he brought McDuffie, the 41-year-old grandson of the couple who founded the school, spoiled what was otherwise a glorious spring day: The institute owed $47,000 in back taxes. Poring over financial records, the tax man realized the school's dire straits.

"He looked at me,'' McDuffie remembers, "and said, 'You all are running a school with no money. You are losing money. How and why do you stay in business?' I told him, 'Because we have a mission. I could drop dead today, but the mission can't die.' ''

That mission--teaching black children--was about all McDuffie's grandparents, Emmanuel and Tinny McDuffie, carried with them when Booker T. Washington first sent them to North Carolina. With less than a dollar, they hopped boxcars and dodged the Ku Klux Klan as they made their way from Alabama to Laurin- burg, a town about seven miles north of the North CarolinaSouth Carolina border.

Once there, they raised money from local sharecroppers and bought land from one of Laurinburg's founding fathers, a former Confederate general. Tinny McDuffie cried when she saw the property; it was marshland-- good for breeding mosquitoes but little else. But with help from other blacks in the town, the McDuffies drained the bog, cleared the trees, and opened the Laurinburg Institute in 1904 with a log-cabin classroom and seven students. As the only school for miles that served blacks, Laurinburg grew quickly.

Dizzy Gillespie, who arrived at the school in 1933, wrote in his memoirs: "During the orientation tour of the campus, Laurinburg seemed like a complete little town. They had classrooms ... dorms for boys and girls, a large football field and outside basketball courts, a hospital, and an administration building.''

Money was always tight, and tuition was always negotiable. "If you could pay with corn, you paid with corn,'' Bishop McDuffie says. "If you could pay with work, you cleaned the cafeteria.''

Even though they were struggling financially, the McDuffies still tried to shape the characters, as well as the minds, of their students. "It didn't pay to complain or to ask too many questions unless you were ready to do some work to change things,'' Gillespie wrote. "I learned you can get a great sense of pride from solving your own practical problems.''

More than 400 independent schools in the United States currently have predominantly black student enrollments, according to the Washington-based Institute for Independent Education; most opened their doors within the past two decades. [See story beginning on page 18.] Only a few of the black independent schools founded in the early 1900s remain. The majority shut their doors soon after the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which promised blacks an equal, integrated public education.

Those schools that survived got by on pluck and luck. The Piney Woods (Miss.) Country Life School, for example, came into $1 million when the school's founder appeared in 1954 on the television program This Is Your Life, and the show's host encouraged each viewer to send in a dollar for the school. Over time, schools like Piney Woods also adapted to the changing needs of blacks in America. They evolved from country schools training teenagers to be field hands and factory workers to college-preparatory schools teaching students to be better students. Like most prep schools, they built an apparatus to recruit students, raise money, and tap revenue sources. Through smart investments, Piney Woods has parlayed its $1 million in gifts into an endowment of more than $26 million.

The Brown decision forced changes at Laurinburg, too. After the ruling, the state of North Carolina wanted to take over the school, but Emmanuel McDuffie refused. A few weeks later, according to Bishop McDuffie, the state condemned the school's buildings. So, with help from the students, the McDuffie family dismantled the school, hauled each brick about a half mile away, and rebuilt it.

The new Laurinburg Institute became a boarding school. But over the years, attracting students became a problem. Enrollment four years ago dipped to a low of 24 students. This past year, there were 62, just less than half the school's capacity.

Room and board costs $10,000 a year, but McDuffie says that because many of the students are from low-income families the school collects an average of $3,500 per student. As a result, Laurinburg faces debts that McDuffie estimates at $110,000. Long-neglected facilities show their age. The school's pride and joy is its basketball program, but there is not even enough money to replace the gym's dented and patched hardwood floor.

Still, a majority of Laurin- burg's students go on to higher education; 80 percent of the 1993 class enrolled in college. "Once they've walked through the fires here, they know the good that comes from hard work,'' says Paul Baldwin, a 1969 graduate and now a science teacher and the school's dean of students.

Even so, some of the school's backers suggest it has slipped from its premier position among black independent schools. Sam Jones heads a group of alumni that met with the McDuffies in April to discuss Laurinburg's financial woes. His action plan for the school includes paying off its debts, launching a major recruiting effort for students and teachers, and appointing a board of trustees to oversee the school's management. McDuffie, Jones says, "needs some direction in how it should be run and what should be done to make it one of the top schools again.''

McDuffie already has taken a few steps to change course. He has worked out a schedule to repay the back taxes and has made several trips this year to recruit students. Sealing a movie deal, of course, would turn much of the school's red ink to black. Glover, the actor, has supported the school financially for some time, and others in the movie industry stepped up to help after hearing its story.

"The Lord blesses the people who work with his children,'' Bishop McDuffie says. "If we're doing what God wants, he'll find ways to help us.''--Drew Lindsay

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