Portable Classrooms No Place To Learn, Critics Say

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 9, 2014 1:39 pm

Across the country, thousands of students go to school in “portable classrooms.” There are an estimated 385,000 of these modular buildings — a quick fix for overcrowding and a lack of funds for new facilities.

Many of these “temporary” structures are still around. And critics say they’re not the places for students to learn.

From the Here & Now Contributor’s Network, KUOW’s Ashley Ahearn reports.


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So another question about schools: Where is lunch being eaten? Across the country, thousands of students go to class in portable classrooms, usually a quick fix for overcrowding and lack of funding for new facilities. But many of these temporary structures have a way of becoming permanent.

From the HERE AND NOW contributors network, KUOW's Ashley Ahearn reports.

ASHLEY AHEARN: From the outside, Billie Lane's classroom looks like a trailer home, standing in the parking lot behind a high school in Puyallup, Washington. But on the inside, things are different.

BILLIE LANE: You guys have got five seconds to pull this together.

AHEARN: The trailer's walls are lined with brightly colored drawings from Lane's students: maps of the world and lots of action figures.

LANE: "Star Wars," "Star Trek," Marvel Universe.

AHEARN: This is one of roughly 385,000 portable classrooms across the country. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency says portable classrooms can have poor ventilation, inadequate lighting and contain building materials that can release harmful chemicals.

LANE: Some of them smell really bad, and it sets a tone.

AHEARN: Many of these classrooms also lack running water and restrooms, and some research suggests that going to class in portables makes it harder for students to learn.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Take that lady by the hand and march her down the center, then go right and then go left (unintelligible).

AHEARN: In a portable classroom outside the Geneva Elementary School in Bellingham, Washington, 20-or-so kids dance and sing during music class. Dave Blake may be enjoying the music, but he's also thinking about all the carbon dioxide those kids are exhaling. He's an indoor air quality specialist with the Northwest Clean Air Agency. He's tested 3,000 classrooms around Washington state.

As the kids file out of the classroom, Blake pulls out a device that looks like a cross between a wind sock and a lampshade. He holds it up to the vents in the ceiling of the portable and then writes down the CO2 measurements.

DAVE BLAKE: Thirty-seven hundred, roughly 1,450.

AHEARN: High CO2 levels tell Blake that students are breathing in too much of their own exhaust, taking in germs from coughs and sneezes that hang in the air, along with dust, allergens and the chemicals in building materials. The levels here look OK, but other monitoring in the state found CO2 levels in portables higher than in regular school buildings, and Blake says that can negatively affect students.

BLAKE: If carbon dioxide levels are high, they impact student performance. And we've got statistically significant results that as CO2 goes up, so does absenteeism. And it's notable that it's a little worse in portables.

AHEARN: Despite problems with indoor air quality, school districts are buying more portables every year and keeping these temporary buildings in use well beyond their life expectancy. In the Puyallup School District, for example, portables make up 20 percent of the classrooms. That's four times the national average. With more students on the way, the problem is only getting worse.

That's something Rudy Fyles stresses about a lot. He's the school district's chief operations officer.

RUDY FYLES: It's looking like we're going to pick up about 2,000 students in the next six years, and the inn is full.

AHEARN: And next year, Washington state is adding all-day kindergarten. So Fyles says that means more portables in his district.

FYLES: We're going to be adding 14 more this year in order to accommodate full-day kindergarten. So we will have 220 portables starting next school year.

AHEARN: Buying a portable classroom is significantly cheaper than building a new school, but portables cost more to maintain as they get older, and as freestanding buildings, they're more expensive to heat and cool and less energy efficient than newer buildings.

But if you ask students, the problems with portables extend beyond air quality issues, energy inefficiency or lack of running water to something deeper. Hannah Peterson is a student in Ms. Lane's seventh grade math class. She's been in and out of portable classrooms for her entire education. She says going to school in a portable makes her feel like a second class citizen.

HANNAH PETERSON: For me, it feels as though our district isn't taking us seriously as students when they take what is supposed to be a temporary structure and make us deal with it because there are all kinds of small, technical issues that make our daily learning environments more difficult. It feels as though we've been kind of pushed off to the side. And I feel a little bit ignored.

AHEARN: In the coming years, Hannah Peterson and her classmates will go on to study in Puyallup High School, where more portables await them. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Ashley Ahearn.

YOUNG: And our story was produced in partnership with Investigate West and EarthFix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.