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SC gets cash to replace school cited by Obama

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[January 27, 2010]  COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- A South Carolina county is getting millions in federal funds to replace a crumbling school cited by President Barack Obama in his first address to Congress last year as an example of how the government should help with school construction.

On the eve of Obama's first State of the Union address, local officials announced Tuesday that Dillon County is receiving $39.8 million in recovery act funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bulk of the money will go toward replacing the dilapidated J.V. Martin Junior High mentioned in Obama's 2009 speech.

InsuranceObama, who had visited the school during a 2007 campaign stop, recalled in the speech last February how "the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by."

All but $4 million of the federal money the county is receiving is a loan, which the area will pay back using revenue from a 1-cent sales tax levied in 2007, Dillon School District 2 Superintendent Ray Rogers said. Some of the money will be used to refurbish existing facilities and build a new early childhood development center. But about $25 million will go toward building a new J.V. Martin Junior High School.


The school is in a rural swath along Interstate 95 in the state's northeastern corner known as the Corridor of Shame, after a 2005 documentary about conditions in schools there. The school itself is a hodgepodge of buildings; the original part, a former church, dates to 1896, and the latest section was added in 1955. The auditorium, built in 1917, was condemned in 2008 by the state fire marshal.

Several presidential candidates visited the crumbling school during the run-up to the 2008 election. Obama first brought national media attention to the students' plight in August 2007, when he winced as a high-pitched train whistle interrupted lessons during his visit.

When Obama discussed the school during his first congressional address as president, 14-year-old eighth-grade student Ty'Sheoma Bethea was in the audience as one of his invited guests.

National support for the crumbling school began to pour in. Students got the surprise of their lives in May, when the CEO of a Chicago company donated $250,000 worth of new furniture and fresh paint on the cafeteria's walls. Bethea spoke about the school's struggles. The dress she wore to the president's speech was ensconced in South Carolina's state museum.

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With the spotlight trained on their district, officials also began dreaming of what a new facility would look like. Officials in July launched an effort to rebuild the school into a model for success with a two-day conference. Architects and engineers have been doing pro bono work for the district to design a new school.

"We've been dreaming a little bit about ... turning it into a prototype of what a 21st century school would look like in a poor, rural community," said State Education Superintendent Jim Rex. "What the USDA money means, we've got the bird in hand. The next phase is the eagle."

Rogers, the local superintendent, says he's ready to take the project full speed ahead.

"It's been slow, but the problem is, we didn't know that the economy was going to take the downturn that it has," Rogers said Tuesday. "A lot of people have worked hard. Whatever we can do is going to be great for the kids."

[Associated Press; By MEG KINNARD]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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