Imagine changing schools at the start of the year, not because of a move to a new neighborhood, but because your school’s roof caved in.
That’s what happened last fall when more than 200 students at Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, run by the state’s Achievement School District, had to relocate to a different school building for the entire year because roof damage was so extensive.
A major storm in May 2017 had left the aging roof in need of a replacement, and water damage over the summer months made the situation worse. “Honestly, I thought [last] year could break me as a school leader,” said Yolanda Dandridge, the school’s principal. “But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either.”
Dandridge told Chalkbeat that even as Georgian Hills students moved back into their original building this year, the school is aging and needs constant repairs.
“The issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need,” Dandridge said. “Schools should be palaces in a community.”
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.
Many Memphis schools are in need of better environments, but schools in Tennessee’s lowest performing district like Georgian Hills are too low in priority for building repairs, said Sharon Griffin, leader of the Achievement School District.
“To put in 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 Shelby County Schools leader Dorsey Hopson in a letter sent in late September.
The state district isn’t its own landlord — so district officials couldn’t just order a new roof for Georgian Hills. In Memphis, the state district took over the buildings from Shelby County Schools, the traditional district. The state district is responsible for day-to-day maintenance costs, while Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes like new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems.
And Shelby County Schools has a lot of its own schools to worry about, which in total have more than 500 million dollars in deferred building maintenance. The 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.
She added that the district has completed projects at four state district schools over the last several years, and is slated to repair a roof at state-run Whitney Elementary School this year.
But Griffin wrote that the districts need to work together to decide which schools get what and when. She said “students who live in poverty should learn in luxury,” and that her students are at a disadvantage because their buildings are in poor shape.
Griffin has said creating a better working relationship with the district is one of her biggest priorities. The Achievement School District operates 30 schools, and almost all them used to be part of the Shelby County district. In her letter, Griffin asked Hopson for a sit-down conversation to talk about the condition of facilities.
That meeting hasn’t happened yet, nor has Hopson formally responded to Griffin’s letter. But Hopson told Chalkbeat he has reached out to Griffin on this issue – and that he has even hinted at possible collaboration.
Hopson has said he believes consolidating schools could help the district cut down on its maintenance cost while “right-sizing” the number of schools. He hopes to see more models like Westhaven Elementary School, where three traditional schools combined into one new building.
“The $500 million in deferred maintenance is hanging around everyone’s neck,” Hopson said.
At a recent panel discussion sponsored by Chalkbeat and New Memphis, a local nonprofit, Hopson said he would be interested in exploring what building-sharing could look like. He brought up the neighborhood of Orange Mound, where there is one Shelby County-run elementary school and one state-run elementary school, both of which aren’t enrolled to capacity.
Such collaboration would be a big step forward in Memphis, as the two districts have historically fought over enrollment because Memphis has too many school buildings and too few students.
But Griffin said she hopes that in the immediate future, Shelby County Schools and the state district can at least develop a better way to address building issues as they arise.
“I want us to have a team on the ground to address issues as they occur, so we get them resolved much quicker than in the past,” Griffin said. “This is a conversation that will continue between SCS and the ASD, and I know it’s in the best interest of our students to collaborate on maximizing the best use of our facilities.”
You can read Griffin’s letter to Hopson in full below.