DILLON -- More than two years after Ty'Sheoma Bethea pleaded with Congress to fix up her South Carolina school, officials held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building, and the former student returned to her hometown to help celebrate what she made possible.
"I am proud to say, Dillon County, we did it, because we are not quitters," said the 16-year-old Bethea. "We all did it."
In 2009, Bethea, then an eighth grader at J.V. Martin Junior High, sent letters to South Carolina's congressmen asking for help, noting other schools she visited had far better facilities. President Barack Obama recounted her plea in a speech to Congress as Bethea sat beside Michelle Obama as their guest.
Bethea wrote the letter as Congress debated putting aside money in the stimulus package specifically for school construction, which didn't make the final cut
"It seems like just yesterday I was walking down the hallway of J.V. Martin, thinking to myself, we need and deserve better," said Bethea, now a student at a high school in Riverdale, Ga., outside Atlanta, where her mother moved to find work.
The replacement of South Carolina's oldest school was made possible with a $36 million low-interest federal loan, to be repaid at 4 percent, and a $4 million federal grant. The middle school is the largest of three Dillon County school projects, accounting for about $29 million, to benefit from the financing. Officials also held groundbreakings Monday on a high school expansion and new primary school.
Obama first brought national attention to J.V. Martin in August 2007, as he visited during South Carolina's presidential primary contest. He promised then not to forget the students at the dilapidated school, featured in a 2005 documentary about the condition of schools along Interstate 95, dubbed the Corridor of Shame.
"This represents a promise kept," said Vernita Dore, state director of the US Department of Agriculture, which provided the funding through the federal stimulus law. "Investing in our children is money well spent."
The new Dillon Middle School, expected to be complete in 18 months, will sit beside Dillon's high school on land the district already owned. Part of J.V. Martin will likely house district offices, which are now in trailers.
J.V. Martin is actually a hodgepodge of buildings, with the original part — a former church — dating to 1896, and the latest section added in 1955. The auditorium, built in 1917, has been condemned by the state fire marshal. The school's gym was built in 1926 as a boxing arena. A classroom building that also dates to 1917 was burned in a fire and rebuilt in 1983, and mobile homes used as classrooms are decades old.
State Rep. Jackie Hayes, D-Dillon, thanked Bethea for focusing national attention on a project that started two decades ago as a dream without funding.
"Finally!" said the legislator better known as Coach Hayes — Dillon's athletic director and head football coach.
Dillon County voters in 2007 approved a one-cent sales tax increase to fund school projects, but financing disappeared with the recession. Banks wouldn't touch it, said Dillon 2 Superintendent Ray Rogers.
Hayes and others discounted critics who argue buildings don't impact students' education.
Beyond the basics of providing a safe learning environment, better facilities help to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. Also, to compete in today's world, students need access to and education on the latest technology, said Dillon County School Board Chairman Richard Schafer.
"You can't put technology in a 100-year-old building," he said.