David Sneed attended Allendale-Fairfax High School in the 1980s, graduating in 1989 near the top of his class. His future wife graduated as class valedictorian.

Both went on to Ivy League universities, he to Yale and Cornell, she to Princeton.

Now, both work as lawyers in Savannah, just a 90-minute drive from Allendale down arrow-straight U.S. Highway 278 to I-95. Many in Allendale still blame construction of that interstate in the 1960s and '70s for the county's long economic fall as north-south traffic veered from U.S. 301 through Allendale to the faster interstate.

The ghosts of once lively motels and restaurants still linger along Allendale stretches of U.S. 301.

Sneed and his wife were not the only Allendale-Fairfax grads in the late 1980s and early '90s to attend top-notch national universities. Sneed ticked off a list of a half dozen others who went to Dartmouth, Duke, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Princeton and West Point.

He describes those high school years as a special era, before Allendale's public schools began failing. He recalls it as a time when the school administration remained stable and a corps of good teachers pushed and inspired students.

“I am very thankful for the education I got in Allendale from fantastic people who believed in kids,” he said.

Sneed and some of those students enjoyed another advantage: Joe Siren, a teacher who doubled as the coach of the high school's debate team.

Sneed remembers how Siren took the team to competitions everywhere, including out of state, even to Harvard, so they could see a bigger world and learn that they could compete with, and beat, anyone.

The team won several state championships and placed in the top 10 in one national competition at Harvard.

Sims Floyd, Sneed's debate partner in 1988 and now executive vice president of the South Carolina Automobile Dealers Association, credits Siren with guiding him and numerous Allendale kids to prestigious universities they never would have dreamed of attending. Many came from poor homes and likely wouldn't have gone to college without Siren, he said.

He remembers when Siren named the debate team “the Possums,” because most of the teams they debated didn't expect much from Allendale kids. ”People always got fooled,” he said.

At debates the team wore sweatshirts with an ugly, green possum emblazed on the front, Floyd said. “It was like a badge of honor to have one of those sweatshirts.”

Floyd said he went on to Auburn University, because that was where Siren studied.

Sneed said he, Floyd and other Allendale students directly benefited from what Siren exposed them to and from his faith in them.

Sneed also credited the Governor's School at the College of Charleston. He and several others from Allendale-Fairfax High attended the college's four-week summer program designed to provide special opportunities for rising high school seniors with exceptional academic achievement and intellectual potential.

“Admissions officers came down from Ivy League schools, and that had a big impact on me and the other kids,” Sneed recalls. It made him and the other Allendale kids realize, “Well, this is not a far-fetched dream. I can potentially go to one of these schools.”

A recent study by a Stanford University economist showed that academically gifted low-income high school students, especially those from rural areas, don't apply to Ivy League and other high-quality universities without peer support and active encouragement, even when the education is offered virtually free.

Siren, 69, left Allendale-Fairfax High in 2006 after 32 years. Now he teaches history at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie campus in Allendale, just a few miles from the high school.

So much has changed since David Sneed attended the high school, Siren says. Then, many of the students, black and white, were middle class and teachers' kids.

Today, just a handful of white kids attend the county schools, choosing instead private schools or enrollment in other districts; 98 percent of the students are poor, and almost all the teachers live in other counties.

Asked about Gov. Nikki Haley's efforts to help raise donations to build a track for the county's high school, Siren replied, “That's nice, but we don't need people's presents to the school, we need their presence in the school.”

Still, Siren said, if Haley is going to raise money for the school, he would rather see it go to math and science instruction than to a track.

“David was lucky,” he said, “In his era it was cool to be smart in school. ... We need those kids, the David Sneeds. We need them pretty badly.”

The Governor's School at the College of Charleston that inspired Sneed to go to Yale no longer exists either.

It closed in 2008, a victim of state cutbacks to higher education.