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From the archive | 1890s Dillon school desperately needs turnaround.

DILLON -- J.V. Martin Junior High School is an eclectic collection of aging brick and portable structures that includes a building erected in 1896.

The White Building, as it is known, is the oldest S.C. public school still in use, according to the state Department of Education.

"It's indescribable, the condition J.V. Martin is in," retired educator Sheila Roberts said. "The people of Dillon have not been willing to spend the money to do the right thing for those children."

J.V. Martin, home to 600 seventhand eight-graders, is considered by many a symbol of the woes -- including outdated buildings and failing academics -- that confront the state's poor, rural school systems.

Those problems will come to a head Wednesday when a delegation will trek to Columbia to try to convince the state Board of Education that the Dillon 2 school district is fixing J.V. Martin's problems.

Dillon County is one of a kind in South Carolina when it comes to how its public schools are governed. How does that system affect its ability to

pay for new schools? Why a high school football coach and lawmaker is the most influential decision-maker on education issues in Dillon County. The state school board can direct the Education Department to take over management of J.V. Martin if it decides school leaders are incapable of solving its academic, administrative and structural problems. A takeover, however, is unlikely.

-- * The school has a new principal, Amanda L. Burnette, whom the Education Department trained as an administrative troubleshooter.

-- * Superintendent Ray Rogers said he has funneled an estimated $500,000 from the county government to pay for repairs and renovations of the White Building, where remnants of a chute lead to a basement that once housed a coal-burning furnace.

-- * Also, a long-term solution for J.V. Martin and other Dillon county schools could be on the way. Rogers and others are hopeful an anticipated referendum this fall could produce money that local coffers and the state have been unable or unwilling to provide for nearly four decades.

A state law will allow the Dillon County school board to borrow up to $60 million for school improvements in the county's three school districts, including Lake View and Latta. That plan would hinge on adoption of a local-option, one-penny sales tax to repay the loan.

'HUGE DIFFERENCE'

J.V. Martin was featured in the 2005 documentary "Corridor of Shame," a term its producer coined to describe conditions in public school districts that flank I-95 in eastern South Carolina. A network TV news magazine show also focused on the school, comparing Dillon 2 to neighboring Horry County, which has been on a school construction binge over the past 10 years.

Both showed conditions inside the building and out -- broken windows, sagging ceilings, water-stained floors from leaky roofs and inoperable bathroom fixtures.

"You have teachers teaching in a building that was built in the 1890s," said Richard H. Schafer, the Dillon County Board of Education chairman.

"How good can your morale be when you see the situation they are in? How do you renovate buildings that are 100 years old? You don't," said Schafer, whose family owns South of the Border.

After receiving an "unsatisfactory" rating two years ago for low test scores, the state Education Department sent an inspection team to J.V. Martin to find the cause of poor academic performance. The three-member panel followed a standard checklist that also took into account the school's environment.

J.V. Martin was the only one of 11 schools around the state that received a follow-up inspection earlier this year and had not taken steps to correct

1890s DILLON SCHOOL DESPERATELY NEEDS TURNAROUND

lingering problems:

-- * Building and safety conditions remained questionable.

-- * Records were incomplete about which students took standardized tests.

-- * Little evidence existed that teachers were routinely observed in class or coached.

Rogers said all three have been addressed.

The Education Department gave Burnette a $600,000 budget to use as she sees fit, and she's already committed to hire several new administrators and counselors. She also spent $28,000 on books to encourage children to read for pleasure. Chalkboards will give way to felt-marker white boards and touchsensitive computer-projection boards.

Rogers said the school tested nearly all its students this past spring and met the state's minimum standards.

During the spring break, renovations and repairs got under way after the district received $500,000 generated by a local sales tax the county government has collected since March 2003.

"That's made a huge difference for us," Rogers said. "We still don't have the best situation, but we're in a lot better shape than we have been" in recent years.

'WE NEED HELP'

When school opens Aug. 23, students will find an exterior and interior with new coats of paint, windows repaired and new flooring tiles. Bathrooms also have been refurbished with new fixtures and stalls. Rogers OK'd the installation of a new fire alarm and security system.

"We've got to do the best we can until we can do better," Rogers said.

Burnette has created a class schedule that keeps students in the same grade grouped together much of the day. Her goal is to eliminate opportunities for misbehavior in the nooks and crannies of the maze-like campus.

Repairs to the White Building over the summer so impressed two veteran teachers, Burnette said, they insisted on keeping their old classrooms instead of moving to a different part of the junior high's campus.

"It wasn't a hard decision to make," Burnette said. "We can make this work."

To help Burnette beef up instruction and enforce decorum, she's hired a curriculum specialist to coach teachers, a "behavioral interventionist" to head off discipline problems and an additional guidance counselor. She also brought in a language-arts consultant to help teachers polish their skills teaching reading and writing.

Rogers said the district will have a full-time school resource officer to help with safety and discipline after a year of rotating deputies.

"Are we asking people to feel sorry for us? No. All these things we've done and we need are expensive," said Polly Elkins, Dillon 2's assistant superintendent. "We just need some help and assistance."

Burnette minces no words about the task facing her.

"This school is in trouble," she said. "The kids in this community need a high school education or they have no hope. Unfortunately, a lot of their parents don't value an education, and we've got to turn that around."

Reach Robinson at (803) 771-8482.

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