BEMENT, Ill. – Temperatures outside the old, red-brick school building in Bement pushed into the 90s again and again in the opening weeks of this school year — and were even higher inside. Administrators were forced to send students home early eight times.
The little eastern Illinois town's schools weren't air conditioned. And the school district — so cash starved that it's considering closing its high school — doesn't have the money to add the cooling systems.
But this week, with temperatures again on the rise, students at the 114-year-old Bement Elementary School heard a new sound alongside the usual questions from their teachers — the low hum of cool air being pumped into their classrooms.
A Texas-based air-conditioning company learned about Bement's hot, old building through an Associated Press story on unair-conditioned schools in the Midwest and decided that, in Bement, things would get just a little cooler.
"It seemed like something we could do pretty easily and help out," said Wink Chapman, vice president of sales and marketing at Friedrich Air Conditioning Company in San Antonio. "We found a need and, luckily, we found a solution — good for us and good for them."
In Shelly Ellis' fourth-grade classroom Wednesday, students and teacher couldn't have been more thankful.
"We're thrilled," Ellis said, as she prepped her students for a math test the next day.
Bement was among the many school districts across a wide stretch of the Midwest that either sent students home early day after day or, in some cases, just closed because they lack air conditioning. The problem, educators say, is made more acute by schools starting earlier and earlier in August in recent years.
While they had kids in school, teachers added water breaks or gave students cold treats such as Popsicles to cool them off and keep their minds off the heat.
The heat isn't just a comfort concern or potential health issue — though Ellis said some of her students felt sick on the hottest of those early school days.
Kids just don't concentrate or learn very well in a 90-degree classroom, both teachers and students agree.
"We couldn't get as much done — it was distracting," 9-year-old James Senter, one of Ellis' students, recalled.
The problem hits both urban and rural school districts. Chicago's public schools lack the $1 billion they'd need to air-condition all of their classrooms. Teachers there had a different type of donation as schools opened this year — 36,000 hand-held fans for students.
It wouldn't cost nearly $1 billion to provide air conditioning for Bement's 380 students, but it might as well. State funding for the school district, which is about 20 miles southwest of Champaign, has shrunk in recent years, so much so that Superintendent Sheila Greenwood said the school board this week is weighing cost-cutting measures that include everything from closing the high school to merging with a neighboring school district.
"We're at a point where we're just trying to figure out a way to keep things going," she said.
Chapman said someone in Friedrich's marketing department showed him the Sept. 2 AP story.
He wasn't surprised so many schools in a region where high temperatures are common lacked air conditioning. In Texas and across the South, he said, central air is usually a given, but many of the buyers for Friedrich's window units are in the Midwest.
Chapman called Greenwood, quickly won her enthusiastic approval, and started working out the details for shipping eight $1,200 window units to Bement. It only took a day to get them on their way, he said, and by last weekend — less than two weeks week after the story was published — the boxy air conditioners were installed in the four-story school building.
"Sometimes perfect storms happen, and this was one (where) we were able to make all of them align," Chapman said.
With air conditioners humming in many of the elementary school's rooms, Greenwood said Wednesday she's touched by the generosity of Friedrich Air Conditioning and Chapman.
"He stepped up and helped a bunch of people he'll probably never meet," she said.
Don Babwin of The Associated Press contributed to this story from Chicago.
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davidmercerap