School in a 'box' has charms Trailer teaching: Some students and teachers deplore the ever-increasing portable classrooms, but others like the isolation.

February 12, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,STAFF WRITER

From gritty Baltimore neighborhoods to the former dairy farms of Carroll County, a generation of children is growing up with trailer classrooms.

At any given time, as many as 40,000 students -- nearly 20,000 of them in the Baltimore area -- are sitting in the 1,600 trailers scattered throughout Maryland.

And the numbers are rising each year in areas hit by runaway enrollment growth and lagging construction budgets.

The rectangular eyesores, which cost $40,000-plus, are turning some school lawns into trailer parks. Teachers and students complain of cold, wet treks to the main building and isolation from the rest of the school.

But many inhabitants of the trailer world have grown fond of the makeshift classrooms, which give the feel of the one-room schoolhouse on the prairie -- no noisy music class next door, no troublemakers banging on the doors, no administrators popping in for a peek.

"In my English class in the [main] building, half the time I'm listening to the Spanish class across the hall recite things," said Jennifer Zeiger, a senior at Franklin High School in Baltimore County. "In the trailer, nothing else is going on. The parking lot is really quiet."

Some teachers have gone to great lengths to make the trailers home. When John A. Micklos first saw the trailer that would be his classroom -- the holes in the walls, the missing ceiling tiles, the graffiti -- he thought about retiring.

"It looked like a green box that a cat had clawed into," said the social studies teacher at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County.

Eighteen months later, thanks to Mr. Micklos' handiwork, the trailer is not only ship-shape but is known as a "museum" -- stocked with photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and former presidents, a plaque commemorating the 1969 moon landing, a tattered copy of the Declaration of Independence and dozens of other artifacts.

"I love it," said the history buff. "I'm by myself out here."

Catonsville Middle School has a "fish" trailer, thanks to art teacher Eileen M. Lang and her class, which painted an underwater scene the exterior featuring a crab, a fish, a sunken ship and a sea turtle on a dusty blue background.

"It was just this plain, ugly, green trailer, so we decided to paint it," Ms. Lang said.

Melanie Coates' trailer has been the backdrop for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which the eighth-grade gifted class performed for schoolmates who watched from the grass.

But teachers and students put up with plenty of indignities on the trailer frontier.

Ms. Lang, for example, taught art in a trailer without running water. She kept a bucket of water for quick rinses, but the students usually had to run into the main building to clean up.

Melba Justice, a mathematics teacher at West Middle School in Carroll County, can't use the school's computer laboratory because a 45-minute class affords no time for a trip to the main building.

On a personal level, what really annoys Mrs. Justice is that she must wear casual clothes and long underwear for midwinter treks to and from the trailer.

"The ladies on my [teaching] team like to wear dresses and shoes and dress nicely, and that's impossible to do if you have to walk over ice and water to get everywhere," she said.

Inclement weather can make trailer life an adventure. At Catonsville Middle one stormy day last year, school officials kept students in the trailers long after their classes had ended.

"They freaked out," Ms. Coates said. "It was dark, and the wind was blowing, and the trailer was shuddering. It was like something from 'The Wizard of Oz.' "

Karen S. Albi, an English teacher at Perry Hall High School, recalled the torrential rains a couple of weeks ago. "The poor little things were like drowned rats," she said of her ninth-graders. "Then they couldn't settle down. They kept shaking like little puppies."

Students have their own complaints: They can't get always get out to the trailers and still be on time to class. And not all trailers have restrooms.

"You have a class on the third floor, and you have to come all the way down, and they yell at you because you're late," said Melissa Nizer, a freshman at Perry Hall. "But you can't hear the bell out there, so that's an advantage, because the teachers don't know when the late bell rings."

"I hate trailers," said Dave Silwick, a Perry Hall freshman. "You've got to walk outside when it's raining and snowing and junk. My books get all wet."

Trailers often have air conditioning when the main buildings don't, but there are the nuisances of nature -- the flies and bees.

Among teachers, the trailer crowd tends to be socially remote, the school's country folks.

"You miss the scuttlebutt, the shop talk," Mr. Micklos said. "I don't know what's going on. I'm not in the clique. I'm on my own."

At West Middle School in Carroll County, trailer teachers take turns venturing to the main building to pick up the mail.

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