President Barack Obama didn't need to read a student's letter to learn about bad wiring, peeling paint and noisy trains that drown out teachers at her dilapidated school. He saw it for himself at a campaign stop.
More than a year before Obama mentioned J.V. Martin Junior High in his speech to Congress Tuesday night, he visited the school in the poor, rural city of Dillon and saw how "the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by."
J.V. Martin is in a region along Interstate 95 dubbed the "corridor of shame" after a 2005 documentary about conditions in schools there. Film producer Bud Ferrillo calls the school "a hodgepodge of decrepit, decaying and unsafe facilities," some more than a century old.
He said Wednesday he remembers Obama wincing in August 2007 as a train rumbled by, its high-pitched whistle halting all conversation.
"When a child goes to a school that's crumbling, is it any wonder that she gets a sense her education is not important?" Obama said then.
The region's schools got attention from other presidential candidates. Democrat John Edwards stopped by and former Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton mentioned them in a radio ad.
Despite the political interest, money remains an issue. Voters in Dillon have approved a $60 million bond issue, but it's not nearly enough to build a new school.
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., said Wednesday he's sought funds for the school every time he's met with Obama.
"I have reminded him ... that a lot of us have used J.V. Martin as a political prop," Clyburn said.
But it was a letter to Congress from 14-year-old student Ty'Sheoma Bethea that put the school back in the spotlight.
She was in the audience for Tuesday night's speech, sitting next to the first lady. She didn't meet the Obama daughters, but she did get to bowl in the White House, she told reporters after about 500 teachers and classmates gathered at J.V. Martin to welcome her home Wednesday.
Obama read part of Ty'Sheoma's letter during his speech. Though her school is in bad shape, she wrote, the students are "trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters."
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