Meredith Reynolds knows how hard her stepdaughter worked to get caught up in school. But now that Allison, who is in fourth grade, has missed three weeks of class due to heating issues, Reynolds is worried her stepdaughter will fall behind once again.

“This year, she is missing so much school because of the heat problem,” Reynolds said. “Allison was behind in school, and she and her father worked so hard to get her caught up. All of this is affecting her. We can’t wait until they get the school open.”

This is the third week that Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary, one of the highest performers in Tennessee’s turnaround district, has been out of class after a cold snap put the school’s boiler out of commission.

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and allowing outside charter organizations to run them. For students in the Achievement School District, every day of instruction matters as the school leaders seek to boost lagging student achievement.

Georgian Hills has been a prominent success story for the district – the elementary school not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, Georgian Hills was in the bottom 2 percent of schools. It is one of 13 schools in the Achievement School District that stayed off of the 2018 state list of academically struggling schools.

Parents like Reynolds are worried the long break from school, especially amid the holidays, will reverse some of the progress made at Georgian Hills. The school hasn’t held class since Nov. 13, but Georgian Hills Principal Yolanda Dandridge said parents had the option to come to the school to pick up food and take home school work if they were able.

“Some families are treating this just as an extra holiday break, and I think their kids are going to suffer from it,” Reynolds said. “Are these days going to be made up at end of school year? How are we going to make up for lost time?”

The Achievement School District said in a statement that issues in finding a boiler to replace the 50-year-old defunct one have caused the massive delay. The district eventually found a boiler in Pennsylvania that will work with the building and are shipping it to Memphis.

Frayser-Corning Achievement Elementary schools, two co-located schools in the state district, also missed nine days of classes due to similar heating issues but returned to school on Tuesday. The district reported that students will return to Georgian Hills when the boiler is likely replaced next week, but some parents are saying they can’t wait anymore.

Dominique Pruitt attended Georgian Hills when she was in elementary school. Now that her 3-year-old son is old enough for preschool, she enrolled him at her former elementary school. But he hasn’t been able to start classes.

“I was planning on trying to see what I need to do to transfer him, but I haven’t got any information back as of yet,” Pruitt said. “That’s the only school he was zoned to that had a special education classroom for him and I want my son to get support he needs.”

Reynolds’ stepdaughter has been at Georgian Hills since the first-grade, and this isn’t the first time she has missed significant class time due to building issues. Last school year, Georgian Hills students missed the first week of class and spent the entire school year in another building due to roof damage and mold. But this time, Reynolds said it’s time for her family to move on.

“We’re doing everything we can to get her transferred immediately,” said Reynolds, whose stepdaughter is zoned to Georgian Hills. “This is making life hard for our family – my work life has come to a dead stop. So has her academic life. I don’t know why they couldn’t send homework online, or something to keep them daily in school work.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time this year for both Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Shelby County Schools has a crippling amount of deferred maintenance for its school buildings, including those occupied by the state district, that would cost more than $500 million. The Shelby County district prioritizes how to chip away at that huge cost based on how many children are affected, the condition of the building, and the type of repair, spokeswoman Natalia Powers told Chalkbeat, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools over the years.

Achievement School District chief Sharon Griffin said in a statement this week that “Shelby County Schools has worked diligently with the ASD through all of the processes involved with locating, purchasing, receiving delivery, and installing the boilers at these school locations.” She added that the school hasn’t been temporarily relocated because of issues finding a potential space in Georgian Hill’s neighborhood of Frayser, and that state law prevents the use of space heaters. 

Griffin added in that she is still seeking to “further engage” with the Shelby County district and other partners on a plan to significantly improve facilities.

Several studies, including two in Tennessee, have found a link between the condition of a school building and student achievement, specifically that students attending school in newer, better facilities score 5 to 17 points higher on standardized tests than those attending in substandard buildings. Another study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of chronic absenteeism.

Griffin said she has had several conversations about facilities with outgoing Shelby County Schools leader Dorsey Hopson this year, but no formal changes have been made to the way the districts manage facilities.

“To put it succinctly, students in our lowest performing schools are also at the bottom of the list when it comes to necessary building renovations required to create a conducive learning environment,” Griffin wrote to Hopson in a letter sent in late September.

This story has been updated with comment from principal Yolanda Dandridge.