DILLON, S.C. — In 2007, when U.S. Senator Barack Obama was running for president, he visited the public schools here in flat, sandy Dillon County, part of South Carolina’s so-called “Corridor of Shame,” a poor region that stretches from north to south along Interstate 95. Obama toured the old J.V. Martin Middle School, part of which dated to 1896 and was still in use.
The building still had a furnace fueled by coal. Students in Dillon had little access to Advanced Placement courses, art and music; and teacher salaries were much lower than in other parts of the state. J.V. Martin had the lowest ratings possible for achievement and improvement on its state report card that year. Nearly half of its students scored “below basic” on the state’s English language arts exam.
“I think this school exemplifies some of the enormous problems that we’re having just in terms of getting enough resources to educate our kids,’’ the future president said, shooting a little basketball in the heavy heat of August in a gym with no air conditioning.
Once he became president, Obama made education, and narrowing the achievement gaps between poor students and their better-off peers, one of his major priorities.
Nine years later, as he approaches the end of his second term, educators and kids in Dillon County say President Obama made good on many of his promises. Here, that came in the form of helping the town replace the decrepit J.V. Martin campus with an impressive new building. And his visits called more national and local attention to under-resourced, rural schools serving mostly minority populations.
But in other ways, the president came late to addressing what experts and locals say are the specific needs of poor rural communities like Dillon, where roughly two-thirds of students are African-American, one-third are white and 90 percent are low-income. Dillon was lucky to have the president personally invested in improving its schools.
President Obama’s signature education policies such as Race to the Top and the expanded School Improvement Grant program to turn around low-performing schools didn’t always reach places like Dillon and Southern communities like it, however, where schools face the triple problems of poverty, a legacy of racial segregation and distance from jobs and resources that could help uplift the community.
“The challenges in rural communities are very real—funding, teacher recruitment and retention, access to technology, poverty, ever-changing expectations, and professional development and support,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. told The Hechinger Report. “These issues, though national, are often felt first, deepest and longest in rural schools.”
Half a dozen of the 4,100 students in Dillon gathered in a conference room at Dillon High School and said they’re proud of their school and community, which is near the North Carolina border 70 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach.
Not only is the middle school new, but the high school graduation rate has soared from 57 percent to 91 percent in four years. Still, just half of Dillon’s new graduates enroll in two- or four-year college, compared with 70 percent statewide. The science labs at Dillon High are too old to use, said Daijuwan Smith, a senior who plans to study engineering at South Carolina State University. It’s still hard to get good teachers to come here and stay, with average teacher salaries at about $43,300 in Dillon in 2013-14, compared with more than $50,000 in the state’s more affluent districts, meaning any progress is tough to maintain.
“Teachers, we’re short of them,” Smith said. “We have a lot of students in one class.”
How Obama found Dillon
Bud Ferillo is a preppy, genteel sort of hellraiser. The activist and former legislative aide* from Columbia, S.C., produced and directed a documentary film called Corridor of Shame, released in April 2005 and shown on public television statewide. He recalls Feb. 10, 2007, when Senator Obama announced he’d run for president in Springfield, Illinois. Because six days later on Friday, Ferillo and his daughter stood in line at the Columbia, South Carolina convention center to hear the candidate speak. Then on Monday, he got a call.
Obama had seen Corridor and wanted to meet him and the people in the film from Dillon and elsewhere.
Weeks later, in March, Obama gathered with about 45 educators and advocates at West Florence High School, halfway between the state capital and Dillon. They had box lunches and sat on metal folding chairs for an hour as Obama grilled them with questions about the state’s rural schools.
Then on Aug. 23, the senator came to Dillon. Superintendent Ray Rogers showed him around the village of rusty portable classrooms at J.V. Martin. “Heck, Ray, what’s up with these learning cottages?” Obama asked.
“They looked like hell,” the superintendent admitted.
Obama won the Democratic Party primary election in South Carolina in January 2008, and Ferillo remembers seeing the senator in a rope line that night after the victory. Obama embraced him and said, “We’ll follow up. We’ll follow up,” Ferillo said.
After he was elected, the town of Dillon stayed on Obama’s radar. A local teenage girl named Ty’sheoma Bethea wrote the president and members of Congress in February 2009, pleading for their help in replacing J.V. Martin, a section of which had been condemned since the president’s visit a few months earlier. “We just want to have a chance at a decent education,” she wrote.
Bethea and her mother were invited to the White House and sat with the First Lady during the president’s first address to Congress on Feb. 23, 2009. The president read a line from her letter. Members gave her a standing ovation. And the president cited Dillon in his first primetime news conference at the White House that same month.
Local voters had approved a penny sales tax in December 2007 to fix the schools but the recession was in full swing and the district couldn’t borrow the additional money it needed for the new middle school.
The Obama administration stepped in. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided the district a $3 million development grant—and backing for a $60 million bond. Rogers has no doubt the president made it happen. Now, the superintendent shows off the new district office, an auditorium next door, and upgraded athletics fields. Most importantly, the old J.V. Martin campus is now shuttered, and students attend the sparkling new Dillon Middle School.
But more needs to be done, locals say. Another school in Dillon dates to 1926 and needs to be replaced. An after-hours school ceiling collapse bent students’ desks like they were cardboard. An aircraft parts supplier to the massive new Boeing plant in Charleston has opened in Dillon and could employ thousands in the years to come, and Rogers wants his students to be ready for those jobs.
Could Washington do more?
Noelle Ellerson, a leading rural education advocate on Capitol Hill, credits President Obama for increasing funds across the board for education the past eight years, which has benefitted rural schools.
The administration fought off cuts to the Rural Education Achievement Program, or REAP, during the recession. The E-rate program to connect schools with the web and more technology has grown to just under $4 billion, helping many rural schools. State waivers under the old No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) also gave rural schools needed flexibility, said Ellerson, the associate executive director for policy and advocacy at the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).
And yet, Ellerson, who through AASA also represents the National Rural Education Association, added that the trouble with the administration’s approach for rural schools has been its reliance on competitive grant programs to disperse education funding, such as Race to the Top, Investing in Innovation Fund (or i3), and the School Improvement Grant program.
Many rural school districts don’t have the grant writers or expertise to apply for most federal grants, so they can’t benefit like larger suburban and urban school systems do, Ellerson said.
“That has negatively and disproportionately hit rural schools [that] were least positioned and had the least capacity to pursue competitive grants,” she said.
In June, the White House announced that 20 new communities joined the president’s My Brother’s Keeper mentoring initiative for youths of color. Only two of the new sites are rural: Indianola, Mississippi, and the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. They’ll share in $100 million from foundations and the government for mentoring programs that now reach nearly 10,000 students in 30 communities.
Secretary King said in a statement that the Obama administration has been serious about “serving rural communities across the nation, to help them overcome the challenges of distance and isolation and help them connect with critical resources of all types.” The secretary plans to visit smaller communities in a back-to-school bus tour of other parts of the South this fall.
“We’re taking steps that should yield real and meaningful progress,” the secretary said.
More broadly, the nation’s students who come from low-income families have made some progress under Obama’s watch. Achievement gaps have narrowed somewhat for minority students, but the differences remain glaring: 72.5 percent of African-American males finish high school on time, even as the national graduation rates reached a record high of 82 percent in 2013-14 (the latest year available). The gap in graduation rates between black and white males grew to 21 percentage points in 2012-13, the Schott Foundation for Public Education found—although federal data show a narrowing gap. South Carolina graduated just 51 percent of black males that year.
Achievement for rural students has been mostly flat in the Obama years, the National Assessment of Educational progress, or NAEP, shows. Since 2007, rural students’ scores in reading and math for both 4th and 8th graders have either stayed the same or increased by an amount not considered statistically significant. Nationwide averages for all students in both reading and math have inched upward during the same period.
Under the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaces the NCLB, Congress must study possible changes to Title I, the provision that provides schools with billions of dollars for students from low-income families. Rural advocates have pushed for Title I changes for years, arguing that larger school systems see greater benefits because the distribution of funds is based too heavily on the number of students from low-income families rather than percentages of those students. The new ESSA law also requires the U.S. Department of Education to inventory its efforts to help rural schools.
Meanwhile, for many rural districts, more attention from the federal government may not be enough to help them close gaps without the help of state governments, which provide the vast majority of their non-local dollars.
The state has forced too much of school funding in rural districts “on the backs of those who just don’t make enough to pay more taxes,” said Rogers, who grew up here and worked at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. “You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip.”
Although many families here are poor, Dillon sits alongside America’s busiest north-south highway. There are stores, fast food eateries and a few larger employers here. That makes it better off than many of the 36 rural districts that sued South Carolina in 1993 demanding more state funding. Their case is finally coming to a head.
Suburban schools in booming areas of the state offer dozens of AP courses and take-home technology for almost every student, but many rural districts have nothing of the kind, said Terry Peterson, senior adviser to former South Carolina Gov. Richard W. “Dick” Riley for 16 years when he was U.S. education secretary and two-term governor.
In its final ruling in the case in late 2014, the South Carolina Supreme Court ordered the Legislature to fix rural “educational ghettos” across the state. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley appealed the court’s decision twice, but has proposed a $200 million-a-year package for school construction and home internet access in rural areas. This spring, lawmakers approved little new funding specifically for the rural districts; per pupil funding was raised by about $200, but the increase applies to all districts.
‘I could be one of those people’
Jackie Hayes wears two tall hats in Dillon: He’s been the football coach for 24 years and also serves as a state legislator. The Dillon Wildcats have won four state football championships during his tenure, tying a state record. Dozens of his players have graduated to professional football. The Democrat credits his fellow lawmakers for adding $9 million in recent years for teacher recruitment and retention in poor school districts. “A lot of good, positive things are happening, but the thing is, you have to maintain that,” he said.
Shawn Johnson just finished his fourth year as the first black principal at Dillon High School since desegregation. He has worked to make the school more rigorous and to provide students with more support. Test scores have risen: Dillon outperforms schools with similar poverty rates on the state’s end-of-course exams in all subjects; still, they’re below state averages on all end-of-course exams, and student-teacher ratios are high for this state at 30-to-1 compared with a 22-to-1 average in schools with similar demographics.
At the new Dillon Middle School, eighth-graders in Teresa Stephens’ South Carolina history class looked to the future of their community. “On some things we get a good education,” said Alexus Davis, sitting with her class at long tables in the school’s media center.
“I think we have very good teachers, especially in math,” said Riziki Nizevimana, whose family came to the U.S. from Tanzania. “I also think we need to bring art back to school,” added classmate Ashley Graves.
Media specialist Marcia Bethea said the new school’s media center is nice, with good technology. But when the new building opened in 2015, the school district didn’t have enough money for her to order new library books. They need a lot more, she said.
At the high school, students like the new dual-enrollment courses from the local community college. “They’re a good experience and they challenge us,” Junior Marniga Lewis said. “We have a lot of potential.”
Remarking that President Obama’s eldest daughter, Malia, had just announced she will attend Harvard University in 2017 after taking a year to travel, junior Jermaine McDaniel said he’s glad just to be able to make football recruiting visits to Ivy League schools—and possibly attend one.
“His daughter is going there,” Jermaine said. “I could be one of those people.”
*Correction: This story has been updated with an accurate description of Bud Ferillo’s previous job, as a legislative aide.
Alan Richard is a Washington-based writer and South Carolina native. He chairs the national board for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust. On Twitter: @educationalan.