Portable classrooms no longer outsiders

Education: Many teachers and students give trailers, which in the past have been called eyesores, high marks.

March 05, 2001|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

They call it the trailer park.

Neighbors complain that the clusters of aluminum buildings around schools are eyesores. Parents scream and yell that they don't want their kids getting a second-class education in portable classrooms. And some teachers complain about the occasional leaks, and the rain and snow and mud that students inevitably track in when the weather is bad.

Parents and elected officials have long complained about portables -- trailers, really -- viewing them as a nasty byproduct of suburban sprawl and crowded schools. The squat, mostly beige-and-brown buildings carry a stigma.

But here is the big secret: Most of the people in them like them.

"It's the greatest thing to happen to this high school," said Donna Szper, who has taught math at Liberty High in Eldersburg since it opened 20 years ago. She now occupies one of 20 portable classrooms lined up behind Liberty like a small Army barracks.

"It's the first time we have windows. I can control the temperature controls. They're bigger. And we have a flush, a WC," she continued, pronouncing the abbreviation for "water closet" in French. "It's just wonderful."

For the most part, from Spring Garden Elementary in Hampstead to Liberty High in South Carroll, students don't mind portables, and teachers say they would rather not return to the crowded main buildings.

"I chose to come out here," said social studies teacher Ralph Chiaramonte, who has taught at Liberty for 20 years and volunteered to join the school's "portable faculty" six years ago. "I'm 47 now, I'm not 27. The trash. The noise. The banging of lockers between every period. The clamoring at lunch. The desire to not have 1,600 kids walk past my room every 51 minutes. I'll stay outside, thank you."

Portable classrooms have become a familiar sight in Maryland and across the country as school districts struggle to keep up with growth. Unable to afford enough bricks and mortar to house their students, counties turned to temporary classrooms that can be relocated.

Carroll County has 117 this year, spread among its elementary, middle and high schools. Liberty High, a 1,600-student school that was built for 1,170, has the most. Some will be carted away when Century High, also in Eldersburg, opens in August.

Baltimore County has more portable classrooms than any school system in the metropolitan area -- 222. Anne Arundel has 111, Howard has 80, Harford has 79 and Baltimore City has 51.

Love-hate relationship

Portables likely made their Maryland debut during World War II when families poured into Dundalk and Essex for jobs manufacturing warplanes at what is now Martin Marietta. With insufficient room in area schools for the influx of new students, school planners brought in temporary, portable classrooms.

The structures began popping up on campuses nationwide in the early 1950s, as baby boomers reached school age. Although portable classrooms were intended as a temporary solution, they became a fixture in states with burgeoning populations, such as California and Florida.

It's pretty much the same story in Carroll County, where the community has a love-hate relationship with its portables.

Last year, when school officials tried redistricting kids out of Mount Airy Elementary and into Winfield Elementary to ease crowding, "parents said, `No, no. Bring us portables,'" said Kathleen Sanner, director of school support services. "But when they stop being temporary and become a permanent eyesore in front of your school, people begin to resent them."

Nevertheless, portables likely are here to stay.

"We don't see these guys ever going away," Sanner said, eyeing the list of portables distributed throughout Carroll. "We do see us lessening our inventory and dumping the ones we can't move anymore, but space is space. The county commissioners are looking to decrease the impact on the capital budget, and these are one of the first places we look to for space."

There is a distinction, however, between the newer portables -- those with bathrooms, water fountains and lots of windows -- and their predecessors, which have fewer windows, less space and no running water.

Social studies teacher Ed DeVincent works in one of those. His inaugural portable experience occurred six years ago in a shiny new one. But three years ago, the Liberty High-graduate-turned-teacher moved into an old elementary school portable that can be best described as a little worn around the edges.

"I went from the penthouse to the outhouse," DeVincent joked, surveying the thinning carpet and aged interior of his current room. "It's worn down, beaten down. I only have one chalkboard, and this place gets real cluttered just with materials. Still, I like being outside and out of the congestion and so forth."

Colorful comparisons

For many, the comparisons to a trailer park are unavoidable.

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