BEMENT, Ill. -- Temperatures outside the old, redbrick 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 schools in the little east-central Illinois town 20 miles southwest of Champaign 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 schools without air conditioning 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 Co. in San Antonio. "We found a need and, luckily, we found a solution -- good for us and good for them."
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.
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.