At the Piney Woods School near Jackson, Mississippi, the mission for more than a century has been to prepare the “heads, hands, and hearts” of black students. Now, the school is enlisting solar power in that mission, using a planned solar array to educate students about a booming industry.

The historically black prep school aims to install 400 solar panels that will power its sprawling 2,000-acre campus. Students kicked off a GoFundMe campaign in March to raise money for the array. They got a big boost in May when Tesla donated a set of panels to the school, but they still need funds to pay for installation and other costs. The school hopes to turn the solar array into a classroom of sorts.

“We want to design it so we can add more panels and have each entering class learn how to install a solar panel,” said school president Will Crossley. To that end, Piney Woods has won a small grant from the Department of Energy’s Solar In Your Community Challenge, a program aimed at bringing solar power to underserved communities. The money will pay for the design of the installation and for educational materials that will help students learn about solar finance and marketing. Teachers want to prepare students, nearly all of whom will go to college, to land jobs in a rapidly growing field.

Students announcing Tesla’s gift of solar panels at their graduation ceremony in May. Source: Piney Woods School

“It’s not job training per se, but career awareness,” said James Svenstrup, Director of Project Development for Trajectory Energy, which is designing the Piney Woods installation and teaching students about the solar business. “We’ll have teaching modules on the science of solar, system design, business and economics, and the social and environmental justice aspects of energy.”

Students are learning architecture and engineering by helping Trajectory Energy assess sites on campus, and they will eventually take on other roles as part of their obligation to work a campus job. Students will also learn about solar power in the classroom. Science teacher Cristina Nica has already begun to integrate solar into her curriculum.

“It will be wonderful for environmental science and physics. It’s our lab,” she said. “It will be helping the school a lot but also provide teaching opportunities, which will be wonderful for us.” She added, “This is going to be awesome.”

While solar is booming in other states, it is just emerging in Mississippi. “The challenge is that we need to save customers money on their bill,” Svenstrup said of solar providers. “Solar has gotten so cheap that we are really close.” State utility regulators revised the rules governing power generation in 2015, opening the door for more distributed solar projects like the Piney Woods array. Students will have the chance to take part in the shift to clean energy.

Students at Piney Woods School. Source: Piney Woods School

“Solar is the quintessential 21st century industry, and will be an important part of the economy for Piney Woods grads throughout their careers,” said Crossley, the first Piney Woods alumnus to lead the school. “The driver for Piney Woods has always been about providing opportunities for people who might be left behind, originally the children of slaves.”

Like nearly all of his students, Crossley attended Piney Woods on scholarship, and like many, he didn’t grow up in Mississippi. Crossley left his native Chicago to enroll in the school when he was 13. “That transition changed the entire trajectory of my life, and set me on a path to go out and do things, things I could not have dreamed of,” he said. After graduating, Crossley became the first in his family to go to college, going on to earn a master’s degree from Harvard and a law degree from the University of Virginia. After stints as a law clerk and an advisor in the Department of Education, he became the president of Piney Woods.

“It is humbling because I hope the [school] founder would be proud to see a graduate serve as a leader,” he said. Dr. Laurence Jones, who established Piney Woods in 1909, came to Mississippi “with a Bible in his hand and $1.65 in his pocket” with the goal of educating the children of former slaves. “Jones had a goal for students to be self-sustaining,” he said. Crossley believes the planned solar installation will help the school achieve that goal. He sees the future expansion of the system as an opportunity for alumni and class reunion gifts.

“That’s what interests me in solar — the goal of sustainability,” he said. “Not just to teach it but to live it.”

Bentham Paulos is a consultant working with the International City/County Management Association, which manages the Solar In Your Community Challenge under contract for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office. This story is made available by Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, politics, art and culture.