DILLON, S.C.—When Bud Ferillo told me to dress warmly, it didn't occur to me that he was concerned I might be cold inside the classroom.
We were heading to J.V. Martin Junior High School, the school made famous by Barack Obama's visit during his presidential campaign. At his first news conference as president, Obama referred to the school as an example of why we need stimulus funds for school reconstruction.
Obama learned about J.V. Martin, built in 1896, from Ferillo's 2005 documentary, "Corridor of Shame," about crumbling schools along South Carolina's I-95 corridor. Funded by community leaders and foundations, the film highlights problems that were presented as evidence in a lawsuit 36 school districts brought against the state for failing to provide "minimally adequate education" to all students. (The South Carolina Supreme Court is expected to rule any day.)
"All" is the operative word as plaintiffs claim unequal treatment. Their evidence is compelling.
Plaintiff districts are 88.4 percent minority compared to the state average of 48.1 percent, according to the lawsuit. They are primarily poor with 86 percent of students getting free or reduced-cost lunches. And 75 percent of students in the plaintiff districts scored unsatisfactory or below average on state achievement tests, compared to 17.4 percent of total students in the state.
Moreover, teachers in plaintiff districts make less than similarly qualified teachers in other districts and fewer have advanced degrees. Not surprisingly, it's hard to recruit teachers to impoverished areas to teach disadvantaged students in collapsing schools without modern equipment.
Ferillo, who heads a public relations firm in Columbia, argues that improving schools not only will help attract better teachers but also raise parent expectations and participation while inspiring children who are aware of their second-class citizenship. Earlier this month, Ty'sheoma Bethea, an eighth-grader at J.V. Martin, wrote Congress asking for help.
South Carolina isn't the only state whose rural schools are in trouble, of course. Many of the 1,200 nationwide that Obama hopes to replace with stimulus funds have suffered declining funding in recent years as manufacturing jobs have disappeared, populations have declined and tax bases have shrunk. But problems are exacerbated by an uncomfortable fact most would prefer to ignore: Poor African-American communities are not a top priority.
Ray Rogers, Dillon School District superintendent, has been at J.V. Martin for 18 years, during which he has been forced to serve as janitor, fire marshal and handyman, battling the elements within and without. Rags fill holes, buckets capture water. A fire drill sometimes means jogging down hallways yelling, "Fire drill!"
Rogers' blue eyes betray battle fatigue and tear up easily as he talks. He says he can take the grief from folks who don't see why he gets so worked up, but he can't fathom how good people can turn their backs on children. He gets plenty of grief.
At the Charcoal Grill over a fried chicken buffet, a fellow at the next table calls out: "Hey, you in good with Nancy Pelosi? I hear she's got $30 million to save a mouse." (He was referring to funds for wetlands maintenance that would benefit, among other things, the salt marsh harvest mouse.)
Another jovial neighbor notices the wedding ring on Assistant Superintendent Polly Elkins' finger and says: "Hey, does Obama know you got all them diamonds?"
It's all friendly enough, but one senses a smidgen of veiled contempt just beneath the banter. These folks remember when nobody ever heard of Barack Obama or Dillon—and when J.V. Martin was good enough for them. None other than Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, a native son, accepted his high- school diploma in the auditorium that's now part of the junior high school. Of course that auditorium, along with one-third of the campus, is now condemned.
As it happens, I did not remove my jacket or scarf during a three-hour interview and tour. Although most rooms were relatively warm, thanks to recent repairs, some still registered as low as 50 degrees. Four years ago when Ferillo was filming here, the gym was 18 degrees.
In other schools along the I-95 corridor, classroom ceilings have collapsed and sewage backs up in hallways on rainy days. Sometimes snakes wander in from neighboring swamps.
What happens in rural South Carolina may not be of paramount importance to people elsewhere, who are facing their own economic challenges. But what's true here is true in rural communities across America, and our choices are pretty simple. As Ferillo put it: "We either educate the child or we jail the adult."