“Welcome back, sweetie,” school administration manager Stephenie Washington said again and again.

She was greeting dozens of elementary students as they walked into a well-heated Georgian Hills Achievement School for the first time in three weeks.

On Monday morning, the elementary school in Frayser held classes for the first time since Nov. 13, when cold temperatures put the building’s boiler out of commission. The Achievement School District, which runs the elementary school and 29 other schools, struggled to find a boiler that would suit the old building. Now, with the new heating system in place, the school is trying to make up quickly for lost instruction time.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Teacher support coach Deborah O’Neil welcomes students with hugs as they return to classes.

“It’s a breath of fresh air to see these babies,” said Washington, the school administration manager. “We’re just excited to be back.”

Georgian Hills is just one of many examples of Memphis’ long struggle with building maintenance.

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 is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools academically. The state-run district uses 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 to address. Just last year, Georgian Hills relocated its students for the entire school year because of roof damage and mold.

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 said, adding that the district has made some major repairs at state-run schools over the years.

Sharon Griffin, leader of the Achievement School District, has said that priority schools in both the state district and Shelby County Schools have been too low on the list of building maintenance priorities. She asked outgoing Shelby County leader Dorsey Hopson for a formal sit-down to talk facilities issues, but that conversation will likely wait until a new superintendent is named.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills staff made signs to greet students on Monday.

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

Lilquesha Sevion, a mother of two at Georgian Hills, said the three-week recess caused massive headaches for parents like her who suddenly had to scramble for childcare.

“It has been very difficult for us,” Sevion said Monday. “It was a struggle to have some of my children in school, and two suddenly not. And they missed a lot on their learning. I’m worried about how they will make it up.”