DILLON — Ty’Sheoma Bethea walked up to the front of Dillon County’s new middle school, raised both arms over her head like a cheerleader and flashed a $40 million smile.
Forty million dollars — that’s how much money has poured into this rural, struggling school system over the past four years. In 2009, when Ty’Sheoma was 14, she wrote a letter to Congress pleading for help for her century-old school, part of which was condemned. And the federal loans and grants began.
Ty’Sheoma turned 18 this school year and will graduate in a couple months, leaving the school system she has done so much to improve.
One of the results of her letter is standing behind her — the first new school built in the county in 40 years.
The middle school was completed late last year, and, built with virtually no help from South Carolina, stands as a symbol of the state’s continuing failure to help improve poor and struggling schools across the 26 rural counties of Forgotten South Carolina.
Ty’Sheoma will graduate with a 3.2 grade-point average and head off to college at the end of summer.
She hasn’t decided just which college that will be. She is weighing several scholarship offers, including one from Clemson and another from historically black Spelman in Atlanta.
But she’s leaning away from both, Spelman because she’s spent most of her life in Dillon County’s predominantly black schools, and Clemson because it’s “too far in the country,” like Dillon County.
She favors Florida State because it’s out-of-state. She had rarely been anywhere until February 2009, after President Barack Obama read her letter and invited her to sit with first lady Michelle Obama in the U.S. House of Representatives gallery while he gave a speech to a joint session of Congress.
Attending Florida State would give her the diverse student body she wants and the opportunity to “explore” a new place. “I want to step outside of my comfort zone.”
If she does not get a scholarship offer from Florida State but still wants to go there, she’s prepared to do it on her own however she can. “I’ve always worked for what I want,” she said. “I never look at the easy way to get out of things.”
Ty’Sheoma gazed at the entrance of the sleek new Dillon Middle School, just finished in September.
She can still hear the thrill in the voices of excited students when they saw it for the first time. Her 14-year-old sister squealed with delight, “Our school is as big as the high school!”
Ty’Sheoma grins and says, “I feel like what I did really made a difference, I’m very proud of myself for the part I played.”
Obama must get thousands of letters a day, “But he read mine. ... It’s overwhelming that I could have helped build something like this.”
Obama had visited J.V. Martin Junior High School, Ty’Sheoma’s former school, during his first presidential campaign. The old school had been featured in the 2005 documentary “Corridor of Shame” about the shabby state of public schools along I-95 through some of the state’s poorest counties.
Obama promised not to forget the school or its students if he became president.
Ty’Sheoma wrote her letter at the urging of then-principal Amanda Burnette, who had told students during an assembly to write Congress requesting help for the school. Burnette did so after Obama mentioned J.V. Martin’s sorry condition in his first presidential news conference.
Ty’Sheoma wrote the letter on a public library computer the evening after her principal had asked, and went to the principal’s office the next day to get help to mail it.
Burnette read the letter and considered correcting the numerous misspellings and grammatical errors. She decided to mail it as it was because it came from the heart, and most of the errors were due to the colloquial English spoken in Ty’Sheoma’s largely poor and black community.
Nationally, Ty’Sheoma received praise for her effort, but at home many expressed anger. They blamed her because she had helped turn the national spotlight back onto the county’s shabby schools and because the ungrammatical letter reflected poorly on the quality of education.
Mayor J. Todd Davis was among those miffed by the image the publicity reflected. He would rather the attention had focused on hometown hero Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman who grew up in Dillon and attended J.V. Martin. The county even named an I-95 interchange after him.
Most of that backlash has died down, Davis said. Now, the mode is “more positive than anything,” and people express pride in the new school, he said.
Lost in the hoopla, he said, is the fact that county residents are on the hook for most of the federal assistance, which is mostly a loan that must be repaid, mainly with a voter-approved, one-cent sales tax increase.
The new middle school cost about $25 million. The rest of the loan and grant money is going toward improving other school facilities.
Ty’Sheoma remained unfazed by the criticism at the time and dismisses it today as the reaction of people who were ashamed and didn’t want others to see what the schools were like.
“But it was needed to be done, whether or not they wanted it to be known. ... We should have been ashamed.” Still, she said, some people continue to believe “it wasn’t all that bad,”
What troubles her the most, she said, is the failure of the state. She is disappointed that the state did next to nothing to help Dillon and has not launched an effort “to help all of the schools.”
Also lost in the hoopla is the continued poor performance of the middle school’s students. The state school report card ranks the students’ performance as “below average.” The district as a whole scored the lowest possible grade, “at risk.”
Still, Ty’Sheoma remains upbeat about Dillon County, its schools and her fellow students.
She was forced to leave Dillon a few months after getting the national attention. Her mother lost her welding job at a local factory and took Ty’Sheoma, two sisters and brother to the Atlanta suburb of Riverdale.
Ty’Sheoma attended high school there for two years, but yearned to return to Dillon and her classmates. She did so for her senior year, staying with an aunt and three cousins.
“I felt like this was where I started, and this was where I wanted to finish,” Ty’Sheoma said.
She believes her fellow students can achieve what they need to if they remain focused and take advantage of what is offered. She believes in the many good teachers and administrators in Dillon County.
She believes so much that she has turned her expressive writing talent to rap music. With the aid of an agent, she cut a CD shortly after starting her senior year at Dillon.
David Godbold, president of Pearl Street Records, the small company promoting the CD, believes Ty’Sheoma has great potential, and he is working with her and other writers and musicians to produce a full CD. He said she also will be the focus of an upcoming segment on Black Entertainment Television.
Ty’Sheoma describes her song as urging kids to stay in school and get an education. “With education, anything is possible.”
While most rap tends toward put-downs and violence, Ty’Sheoma characterizes her first single “Swurve On” as “motivational hip hop. It’s about swerving through life, preparing myself now for better things.”
She grew up in a downtrodden part of Dillon but does not believe that has to dictate a negative outlook. “I came from a bad place, my music doesn’t have to be bad.”
She plans to major in business administration in college and hopes to gain the skill to make a difference “so I can come back and help this area and the children.”
“I do want to go out and explore other areas, but this is the place I really want to help.”
Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558