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Living With the Permanence of Portables,

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Using portable classrooms to relieve school overcrowding is a solution heralded -- and hated. It's all a matter of attitude, some teachers say.

While politicians and school officials argue the pros, cons and costs of school construction in Florida and elsewhere in the nation, one thing looks certain: portable classrooms, the most popular solution to overcrowding, aren't going to roll off into the sunset anytime soon.

Although many parents and politicians argue passionately against mobile classrooms -- the majority of which never move -- teachers across the country seem much less perturbed by their use, and in many cases, actually prefer them.

Granted, the downside of portables cannot be ignored. Valid concerns are being raised about the safety of some portables, including in Minnesota's Lake Forest Public Schools, where 16 portable classrooms were closed in September because of poor and potentially unsafe construction.

Many people also worry about older units that are being occupied far beyond their intended use -- one "temporary" classroom still being used in Florida was built in 1949, for example. And concerns have been voiced over the accessibility of the classrooms in the event of a fire -- in Florida, many are spaced close together, with not enough room for a fire engine to get through.

Other concerns include lack of inspections, improper anchoring (making them susceptible to wind damage), high maintenance and the cost it incurs, and, perhaps most of all, the fact that portables are brought in when school buildings are already at their maximum capacity, meaning relief from overcrowding in classrooms but a worsened situation in cafeterias, playgrounds and parking lots.

Some critics, like Florida State Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, charge that the portables are also isolating. "It's like being in a shack. You're segregated from the rest of the school," she said in the Tampa Tribune.

Yet, despite all the negatives, purchasing a portable classroom costs roughly one-half what it costs to build a new permanent classroom, and so, good or bad, budget-crunched school districts are likely to continue making the "portable" choice.

Given this reality, many teachers have chosen for their sakes -- and the sakes of their students -- to look at the glass as half-full.

Many teachers look at the "isolation" of the units as the biggest plus, for example. "I'm very happy here. It reminds me of an old-fashioned school," said Tampa, Fla., teacher Jennifer Lancaster, who occupies the unit built in 1949. Yes, "termite gook" sometimes falls from holes above the door, but she takes it in stride, covering the holes with posters of Matisse's artwork.

Not having to deal with the noise of other classrooms and hallway distractions is a big attraction for many teachers, and control over classroom temperature is another plus.

And at some grade levels, being separated from other kids can carry additional benefits. Such is the case with sixth-graders, who are usually nervous about starting middle school and are sometimes much smaller than the eighth-graders, said Judy Klinek, principal of Florida's Loggers' Run Middle School, which has 56 portables on its campus this year. To make having class in a portable more appealing -- and to help alleviate cafeteria overcrowding -- sixth-graders get to eat at umbrella-topped, cafe-style tables in a landscaped area, weather permitting.

Teaching art in portable classrooms for the past nine years, Lancaster said she doesn't think students suffer at all. And she finds it far preferable to being a "portable" teacher, taking her art lessons from classroom to classroom. "Of course, in a perfect world I'd be in a studio with a big sink in the middle. But we're flexible in education. You have to be flexible."

Joe Conte, another Florida teacher, taught for the first time last year in a portable after 27 years in conventional classrooms. He said despite his initial misgivings, he enjoyed it. "I never had any students complaining," said Conte. In his opinion, the success of portable classrooms "depends on attitudes, the attitudes that the teachers have coming in."

"[Portables] have pluses and minuses," said high-school mathematics teacher Jim Crowley, in the Gainesville (Fla.) Sun. Unlike some teachers, Crowley dislikes being away from the main school building. Still, he says, he doesn't find teaching in a portable detrimental in any way to the educational process. "It doesn't change my style or ability to get my points across."

The popularity of portables has created such a high demand for the classrooms that they are being ordered by school districts faster than they can be produced. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that at Clarendon Alternative School, classes were held in the computer lab, the library, the teachers' lunchroom, the after-school child care center, even in a lobby area, while they awaited seven new portable classrooms.

But for educators in the school district, where reducing class size was a priority, the wait was worthwhile.

"Having 20 students in a class is such an incredible difference," said V. Kanani Choy, principal of Clarendon Alternative School. "Teachers and parents were walking around dumbstruck for a while by the change in the classes. We felt the timing could have been better, but a couple months of inconvenience is a price worth paying."

Of course, the price may not be worthwhile in the long-run, as maintenance costs for the units add up. Still, it appears the use of portables is here to stay. In Florida, for example, 75 percent of a school's portables are now to be counted as permanent classroom space.

Are you finding yourself teaching in a portable for the first time? As a friend of mine says, "Things always work out for the best when we make the best of things." Here are a few ideas to help you head in that direction:

  • View your portable as private, special space. Spruce it up with colorful posters and fun touches as much as possible. (Ugly-ceilinged classrooms are always more lively when zigzagged with bright paper chains!) If you feel good about your space, so will your students. Likewise, if you openly hate it and feel like a second-class citizen, they probably will too.
  • Take advantage of being close to the outdoors and plant potted gardens, flower or otherwise, around your unit--a great class project! (A hint for keeping your live things living: plants in pots need a lot more water than those planted directly in the ground.)
  • Transform your entry-way with the seasons: Morning glories or four-o'clocks will happily grow up a trellis in warm weather; dried cornstalks and gourds are a great way to herald autumn. Plant sunflower seeds in May for welcoming delights in September.
  • Encourage the use of umbrellas (sometimes deemed "uncool" by middle-graders who'd rather get wet) by requesting that parents supply them for their children at the beginning of the year (preferably a solid, light color), then let the kids go wild with water-proof markers for one-of-a-kind designs.
  • If the climate allows, consider letting kids in mobile classrooms eat outdoors for lunch, either at cafe or picnic tables (following the example of Loggers' Run Middle School, mentioned above) or on blankets.
  • The occasional bug make its way through the cracks? Seize the teachable moment! What kind of bug is it? If the kids are old enough, send them scrambling to determine its species and genus. Not the opportune time for such activity? Make "bug-squasher" or the more humane "bug-releaser" a regularly assigned job!

Article by Colleen Newquist
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 10/06/1997
Updated 01/04/2005