Chapter 1 - Allendale represents all that's off track

Allendale County is a microcosm of the educational, health and economic problems that plague South Carolina. The roots of the disparities run deep and are perpetuated today by lingering racial, social, cultural, governmental and political attitudes. Buy this photo

ALLENDALE – Youshi Kirkland is a hero in this farm town, where boarded-up shops line streets and weeds stand tall in the cracked pavement of U.S. Highway 301, once a major East Coast traffic corridor.

Kirkland, trim and muscled, will turn 17 soon, young by hero standards. But in Allendale it's tough to find something to be proud of, so the community latched hold of him and other members on the Allendale-Fairfax High School track team for bringing home a state championship four years in a row. The team's performance slipped a bit last year, but the town still holds the players in high esteem.

Partly for that reason, Gov. Nikki Haley picked Allendale for the first of several efforts last year to rally residents of some of the state's most distressed counties to improve their lives and make their communities better.

The governor's key goal was to capitalize on the fact that Kirkland's high school has no track. That forces the school team to practice and hold meets a half-hour away in Denmark or an hour's drive to Walterboro, where few hometown fans can watch them.

Haley reasoned that by helping raise donations to build a track she could take advantage of community pride in the team's success. She might be able to galvanize not only an effort to build a track, but also a greater community spirit to uplift people and help them pitch in to tackle Allendale's deep social and economic problems.

Kirkland loves the governor's attention to his team. The track may not be built in time for the junior to compete on it, but he knows the hardships caused by the long drive for practice. Mostly he craves the opportunity for “more people to come see us.”

Like Kirkland, many in Allendale praise the governor for her effort. Others see it as a nice, but shallow gesture, given the county's deep needs.

When the governor seeks charity to build what other public schools get from government funds, it emphasizes the lack of concrete state aid to help struggling counties, they say.

The truth is that without state financial help, Allendale, with barely 10,000 people and little industry, doesn't have enough of a local tax base to adequately teach its children, much less build a track for its only public high school.

That financial deficiency shows in the county's public schools, which consistently rank near the bottom on state report cards.

That sorry performance comes as no surprise in a county where two out of every five residents live below the poverty line, where one in six can't find work, and where overall health ranked worst among the state's 46 counties in a nationwide study last year.

Allendale is the poster child for the poverty, sickness and ignorance that plague many of the 26 rural counties that almost encircle metropolitan Columbia. And Haley's volunteer effort here highlights the state's continued failure to systematically attack lingering disparities in education, health and economic opportunity.

Today, the results of that neglect are clear. They can be seen in schools, where too many students enter high school functionally illiterate; in emergency rooms, where the working poor go for costly treatment of serious ailments that could have been prevented; and in poverty statistics, where all too many South Carolinians end up.

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