Griffin: ‘Students who live in poverty should learn in luxury,’ but state-run schools are far from luxurious

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Elementary School is back in its original building after roof damage caused the school's students to relocate last year.

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.

school facilities

Cold temps close Memphis state-run schools, highlighting bigger issue of repairing costly, aging buildings

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary was one of four school closed Tuesday due to heating issues.

About 1,200 students in Tennessee’s turnaround district stayed home from school on Tuesday because their school heating systems weren’t working properly.

Temperatures dipped below 35 degrees, and four schools in the Achievement School District opted to cancel classes because of boiler issues: Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary School, Frayser Achievement Elementary School, Corning Achievement Elementary School, and Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

Aging school buildings in Memphis have caused headaches and missed school time for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District, which occupies buildings rent-free from the local district. Just last week, Hamilton High School in Shelby County Schools closed for two days after a power outage caused by heavy rain, and Kirby High School remains closed because of a rodent infestation. Kirby’s students are being housed in different schools for the rest of the semester while repairs are made to rid the school of pests.

But Tuesday’s closures for state-run schools point to a larger issue of facilities: In a city full of older school buildings needing expensive updates, who pays, and who does the work? There is a formal maintenance agreement between the two districts, but the lines that divide responsibilities for repairs are not always clear.

Shelby County Schools is responsible for bigger fixes in the state district, such as new roofs or heating and air conditioning systems, while the state district’s charter operators are responsible for daily maintenance.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the Achievement School District, said they are working with Shelby County Schools to resolve the heating problem at the three elementary schools, two of which share a building. But he said that as of midday Tuesday, it wasn’t clear how long the repairs would take and whether or not school would be back in session tomorrow.

“We know it throws off our teachers and students to miss class,” White said. “It’s an unfortunate situation. And it underscores the larger issue of our buildings not being in good shape.”

The charter organization Frayser Community Schools runs MLK Jr. High School as part of the Achievement School District, and a spokeswoman for Frayser said they were handling the broiler repairs on their own.

“We are not working with SCS because they don’t handle HVAC issues that are less than $25,000” maintenance director, Erica Williams told Chalkbeat in an email.

The state district was created in 2012 to turn around the state’s lowest-performing schools by taking over local schools and giving them to outside charter organizations to run. 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.

But Sharon Griffin, chief of the Achievement School District told Chalkbeat previously that one of her goals is to resolve problems more quickly with Shelby County Schools when a major repair is needed to avoid lost class time.

Still counting

Jeffco bond measure that had been failing pulls ahead in narrow race

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Students work on breathing exercises during a yoga class at the end of the school day at Pennington Elementary School.

Update: Over the weekend, the bond measure pulled ahead and is currently headed toward passage, with 50.3 percent of the vote. We’ll continue to update this post as new results come in.

Vote tallies released Thursday in Jefferson County show that a $567 million bond request is down by just 132 votes, opening up the possibility that it might yet pass.

We previously reported that Jefferson County voters had approved a $33 million local tax increase but turned down the bond request. At midday Wednesday, just 48 percent of voters had said yes. The gap was roughly 7,000 votes, and the trend hadn’t changed since the first returns were posted Tuesday evening. It appeared to mark the second time in two years that Jeffco voters had turned down a request to issue debt to improve school buildings.

But by Thursday evening, with additional ballots counted, the margin by which Jeffco Measure 5B was failing had narrowed significantly. The 132-vote margin is currently within the window that would trigger an automatic recount. A mandatory recount is triggered when the difference is one half of one percent of the number of votes cast for the higher vote count, according to officials from the Secretary of State’s office.

Backers of the tax measures are holding out hope the result could change.

District officials said they plan to use the proceeds of this year’s tax measures to raise teacher pay, increase mental health support for students, beef up school security, expand career and technical education, improve science facilities, add more full-day preschool, and buy classroom materials and technology.

On Wednesday, Katie Winner, a mother of two students in Jeffco schools, told us the two tax measures were closely tied and both equally needed.

“I want to know what voters were thinking,” she said. “I didn’t see one without the other.”

We’ll keep tabs on the counting and update you as soon as we have a final tally.