Of the many arguments for or against portable classrooms, Andrew Friedson, a rising senior at Churchill, has one that could only come from personal experience.
“They definitely smell worse,” he said.
Friedson, who has been attending school in the Churchill cluster for his entire school career, has had experience with trailers at all of the school’s levels.
His first experience with them came when he was in the fifth grade at Wayside Elementary. “When I was in elementary school I thought it was crazy,” he said.
He didn’t have any classes in the portables that year, but he had them throughout his middle school career at Hoover, and during his first year at Churchill before its recently completed renovation.
Although Friedson will not spend any classtime in portables this year, they have become a fact of life for many county students.
When classes begin on Aug. 26, hundreds will be attending class in the now-ubiquitous gray boxes planted just outside the majority of the county’s schools.
Friedson attributes the smell to mildew carpets, but beyond that doesn’t see many problems with the facilities. “The carpet’s gross,” he said, but “you’re still in class. I don’t think anybody loses their focus.”
A potential loss of focus is not the parent’s main concern, according to Churchill Cluster PTSA Coordinator Janis Sartucci.
“From the beginning, security has been the primary parent issue,” she said.
If a child has multiple classes in a portable, or needs to use the bathroom, “students might be outside seven or eight times a day,” Sartucci said. “The teachers don’t focus on that the way the parents do.”
She believes that the incidents last October proved the point of security concerns. “The sniper crisis totally validated their concern,” Sartucci said.
She also believes that the security issue is not limited to students in the portables. Since it forces more doors to be unlocked, it increases entry points for possible intruders. “That’s not your best security situation,” Sartucci said.
Sartucci’s other concern as a parent is on that is shared by students, weather.
Friedson states that since portables are sometimes placed far from the building, going out to them in inclement weather can be a problem. “Sometimes, when it’s raining, it can get annoying,” he said.
He explained that if students haven’t brought a jacket with them they will most likely end up getting wet. “You’re not going to have time to go to your locker and go outside,” Friedson said.
In a way, the problem started in the early 70s when, according to Joe Lavorgna, director of Planning and Capital Programming for Montgomery County Public Schools the school population was approximately 125,000 students. At the time, the school system had enough schools to accommodate the students.
The “baby bust” years, however forced school enrollment down to 95,000 in 1982. “During that period 62 schools closed,” Lavorgna said.
It was also during those years in the early 80s when portables started being used, at least in recent times, estimated Bruce Crispell of the Department of Planning and Capital programming. He explained that they may have been used during the “baby boom” years of the 1950s.
Enrollment for next year is estimated to be more than 138,000 students, and with closed schools being difficult to re-open (see sidebar), there aren’t enough classrooms for all of the students.
This has forced the school system to depend on portables to provide space for 686 classrooms.
Additionally, says Lavorgna, class size reduction can create a need for a portable. For example, if a school has 20 classrooms and each has 25 students in it the school might be considered at capacity.
If it is decided that the school needs to reduce its class size to 24, and take one student from each class, it still needs to put the students somewhere, and since there are no open rooms, a portable would be brought in. “There, the staffing would be better than 25 to 1,” Lavorgna said.
Sartucci sees the lack of instructional space as a more fundamental problem of vision. “There’s nothing in the planning process to say, we’ve had this major shift,” Sartucci said. “I think the whole planning process is not flexible,” she said.
She explained that when the boundaries were drawn for Potomac Elementary the committees failed to take into account future development. “Somebody wasn’t paying attention,” she said. “There’s over 100 houses being built.”
Sartucci, however, has resigned herself to the use of trailers in the county, but she thinks that there needs to be more dialogue.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about this in other states. We have not discussed this much in this state,” Sartucci said. “We’re in the infancy.”