DILLON - Ty'Sheoma Bethea and her family moved to Atlanta in October after her mother lost her job.
But Friday, Ty'Sheoma, the 15-year-old who helped persuade President Barack Obama to address subpar conditions at her school, returned home to Dillon to celebrate with her former classmates and teachers.
She and the others recently learned the U.S. Department of Agriculture will give about $23.5 million in a low-interest, 40-year loan and a $4 million grant toward a new school to replace the crumbling J.V. Martin Junior High. The money, which comes from the $787 billion stimulus bill Obama signed into law last February, will begin flowing to Dillon next month.
Dillon school officials are borrowing another $4 million to help pay for the new school and to renovate several other county schools. The loans will be paid back from a penny sales tax increase Dillon voters approved in December 2007.
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The district hopes to break ground on the replacement school, to be named Dillon Middle School, in mid-May.
"I'm proud of myself and my school for working hard and making such a big change," said Ty'Sheoma on Friday as she sat in J.V. Martin's gym, where the roof leaks every time it rains and the temperature is always too hot or too cold because there's no heating or cooling system.
The auditorium down the hall is condemned because of structural problems. And one building on campus, used for classrooms and office space, is more than 100 years old.
"I know they'll use this money to supply the students with what they need," Ty'Sheoma said. Last year as an eighth grader, Ty'Sheoma wrote a letter to lawmakers asking them to help find the money for a replacement school.
The letter earned Ty'Sheoma a seat next to first lady Michelle Obama last February during President Obama's first address to Congress. She also got a promise from the president that he would find the money to help J.V. Martin and other dilapidated schools across the country.
"All I can say is 'wow,'" said Ty'Sheoma of her trip to Washington D.C., which included a tour of the White House. "I still can't believe it happened to me."
Friday, state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex held a ceremony at J.V. Martin to honor Ty'Sheoma and two others he said were instrumental in making the new school possible - Richard Schafer, the longtime chairman of the Dillon 2 school board who worked to pass the penny sales tax referendum, and Darryl Rosser, CEO of Chicago-based Sagus International, which donated all new furniture to J.V. Martin last year.
These days, Rosser is on a new mission: to help find $20 million more in private and federal dollars to make the new school a showcase of 21st century learning that addresses the unique needs of poor students.
Rosser and Rex envision a school that includes:
- Office space where dentists, doctors, counselors and other professionals who work in social services could set up shop. Many of the school's students forgo basic care because their families can't afford it or don't know they qualify for reduced-rate care.
- Space for adult education classes and training programs for jobs. The hope is the school district could partner with the technical school system, local employers and others so parents would have a convenient place to learn new skills.
- A library that students and community members could use to check out books and access technology.
"Certain schools in other parts of the country have some of these elements," Rosser said. "But this new school would combine all of them. It would be a place where people all over the United States could come and see how a 21st century school works."
Dozens of other rural S.C. schools are in equally bad shape and need to be renovated or rebuilt, acknowledged Rex and others at Friday's event. And new schools are only one step toward the ultimate goal of improving student achievement, they added.
Rex, a Democrat running for governor, said it will take big changes at the state level to increase student achievement, including creating pay incentives for teachers who get results in the classroom and attracting the best and brightest teachers to the state's struggling rural schools.
"A new J.V. Martin is milepost one on a long run," Rex said. "It's a start and a great symbol of what we can overcome."