A permanent 'portable' solution?

Enormous sunflowers, vivid yellow against blue sky, climb the outside wall of a first-grade classroom at Mathews Elementary School in Austin, Texas. But no breeze can bend these flowers - they're fabricated, a painted mural.

Likewise, the building they adorn is rootless. It is one of approximately 600 portable classrooms serving the Austin Independent School District (AISD). Roughly 30 percent of the student body here spends at least some of the day in such trailers.

"Portables are the easiest, cheapest way to add square footage to a campus," explains Pete Price, principal of the O. Henry Middle School.

Nationally, about one-fifth of districts face overcrowding, a result of rising enrollments. The Modular Building Institute in Charlottesville, Va., estimates there are nearly a quarter of a million portables being used by public schools, which may increase by 20 percent annually. School boards find it easier to add trailers than new classroom space. And the structures offer flexibility in districts where the enrollment fluctuates from year to year.

Hector Hinojosa, supervisor of plant improvements for Austin, says the oldest portable in the district was built in the 1950s. Not ready for the Smithsonian yet, that building continues to be used on a campus.

Typically the trailers measure 24-by-64 feet with eight-foot ceilings. Each features two classrooms with a wall in between, and is designed to hold 50 people.

Austin portables are built locally. Last year the low bid for an elementary portable was around $57,000 and for secondary about $45,000. Currently there is a moratorium on building new portables, though the district did rent two from GE Modular Space this year. The price of these for nine months, including delivery, pick-up, skirting, and porches, runs $12,450 each.

Purchase price for similar prefab units - referred to as turnkeys because, as with mobile homes, they arrive fully assembled - run from $38,000 to $60,000, with an average cost of $45,000. The range is so great because different regions have different requirements: In the Southeast, structures need to be more windproof; in the Northeast, roofs need to be able to hold a heavy snow load; and in the West, heat needs to be contended with.

Once the contractors come in and do their thing on portables - plumbing, electricity, data lines, porches, walkways - the portables have most of the amenities of permanent classrooms, if not the aesthetic splendor.

In certain cases, the buildings are oxymorons manifest - permanent portables that have been in their location for ages and probably will remain so. Such is the case of the sunflower-adorned structure at Mathews.

"They've been here at least fifteen years," says Principal Ben Kramer. "We are landlocked - we can grow no further," he adds, referring to building growth.

Population growth is another matter. "Right now we are overenrolled for our pre-K program," he says.

Kramer and Price and their colleague Barry Aidman, principal of Casis Elementary School - which during an asbestos removal project became what Aidman terms a "portable city" - concur on the advantages and disadvantages of holding classes in a temporary room.

"You're away from the main office so the principal doesn't bug you. You're master of your own universe," Price says.

"I think for the most part those who are in them enjoy them," says Kramer. "They don't have the hustle and bustle. They're right off the playground. Their a/c is more reliable."

(Air conditioning is not an issue to be taken lightly in a city where school begins under the broiler flame otherwise known as mid-August. Often, main buildings have two temperature settings: Mars and Antarctica. So having some semblance of climate control is something a lot of teachers would trade a golden apple for.)

While many accept the portables as a necessary evil, not everyone agrees the choice is the most affordable long-run solution. Dr. Ken Tanner, a professor at the University of Georgia's School Design and Planning Laboratory, takes great issue with the structures.

Calculating the long-term expense of initial cost, rent, interest, and maintenance of portables over forty years, and comparing these figures to the cost of a longer-lasting permanent addition, he suggests the latter is financially sounder.

"Add just about any cost that you may dream up to the traditional schoolhouse maintenance and operation over a 40 year period, and the financial facts against the mobile unit are clear," he postulates. "The dollar cost is prohibitive. Even if the dollar costs were the same, we must consider the students' affective, behavioral, and cognitive learning in a trailer."

Barry Aidman has another perspective. He currently has eight portables, two of which are there to stay and, he figures, the others are there for the long haul. He's not too worried about this.

"I have a perspective about this because I taught overseas," Aidman says. Though he wasn't in a portable, he was in a building apart from the main one.

Still, the students learned.

"I'm not sure that great teaching requires a certain kind of physical arrangement," he says. "Think about how we learn. All of our learning doesn't happen in school - it happens in church, in sports, in the car. It doesn't happen in six rows of six each. It's important we have a clean and orderly and safe [environment]. But there are great teachers who teach in all kinds of surroundings."

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