Portable classrooms, despite heat and noise, find permanent homes here

Student teacher Elisse Bevilacqua teaches a class inside a portable at Skyline Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource.

Editor’s Note: Portable classrooms have their share of critics and raison d’etre. An Inewsource investigation published here under special agreement gets to the bottom of the portable classroom question.

Escondido Union School District has almost as many portable as permanent classrooms, 419 of the former to 489 of the latter in a district with 19,204 students. In fact, EUSD ranks second in all of San Diego County for the percentage of portable classrooms in the district, about 45 percent.

No other Inland North County district comes close. The EUSD figure ranks it as highest portable classroom share among districts with at least 5,000 students.

EUSD exhibits a wide discrepancy in portable totals. Some EUSD school go well above the 50 percent threshold. Oak Hill Elementary, for example has 28 portable and 20 permanent classrooms, a 60 percent portable rate.  Bernardo Elementary has no portable and 32 permanent classrooms. 

Escondido Union High School District has 23 portables and 294 permanent classrooms for 9,442 students, a 7 percent rate, which was among the lowest totals for districts with an enrollment of 5,000 or more. Tiny San Pasqual Union Elementary School District has a 23 percent rate with 7 portable and 26 permanent classrooms.

San Marcos Unified School District has 214 portable and 616 permanent classrooms for 20,452 students. Valley Center-Pauma Unifies School District has 46 portable and 164 permanent classrooms, a 23 percent rate, although district offices are housed in portables as well.

For more, view this interactive tool at http://inewsource.org/portables/#interactive.

One striking thing about Scripps Ranch High School is how typical it looks. Opened in 1993, it’s not particularly modern, but it doesn’t seem outdated. Teal stripes accent the tan walls so familiar to San Diego students and teachers. Two-story buildings face a circular courtyard.

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School districts have relied on the structures for decades, even as officials consider health risks and impacts on learning.

In a rear parking lot is another common feature — portable classrooms.

In a countywide survey, inewsource found that almost one in five classrooms in 35 school districts are portable.

These cheap and easy structures have been flagged for poor ventilation, and they are often either too hot or too cold. The sounds inside can be loud enough to justify a noise complaint. In Scripps Ranch, skunks and flooding have plagued the portables. In addition to health concerns, studies show school surroundings can negatively affect a student’s ability to learn.

The structures, also known as modular or relocatable classrooms, are less expensive to build than permanent classrooms and can be put in place quickly to meet unexpected changes in enrollment. State policies and financial incentives over the years also have encouraged school districts to rely on portables.

Julia Knoff has taught history in a portable classroom at Scripps Ranch High School for 20 years. April 18, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

Julia Knoff has taught history in a portable classroom at Scripps Ranch High School for 20 years. April 18, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

Scripps Ranch High teacher Julia Knoff has spent her entire career in those rows of portables.

“I’ve been teaching in a parking lot for 20 years,” Knoff said.

When she started teaching history in classroom B13, Scripps Ranch “was two years new at that point and there were already 17 portable rooms.”

Since then Knoff has moved a few times, never to a permanent classroom. Instead, the number of portables at the school has more than doubled to one in every three classrooms. Hers is one of almost 1,500 portable classrooms in the San Diego Unified School District, according to data gathered by inewsource.

Still, Scripps Ranch is barely in the top 50 schools in the district when it comes to share of portable classrooms. In some elementary schools, including Kumeyaay in Tierrasanta and Rowan in Fairmount Park, more than half of all classrooms are portables.

The use of portables follows no discernible economic or geographic pattern. At Marshall Elementary in Chollas Creek, virtually all students receive free or reduced lunch, and at Dingeman Elementary in Scripps Ranch fewer than one in 10 students do. But at both schools about 53 percent of classrooms are portables.

Jerabek Elementary in Scripps Ranch is 58 percent portables, the second highest number in San Diego Unified. Parents there agreed quality facilities affect students’ learning.

Andrea Potterat had two children graduate from Jerabek. She was picking up students at the school for a neighborhood carpool on a recent afternoon.

“I think that if you are in a rundown, decrepit building, it probably does not invigorate you or give you a sense of joy in your space and your day,” she said.

Potterat called the portables at the school “a real problem,” citing the ratio of students per square footage in the classroom. She said they were “some of the last built on-site portables.”

“Some of those rooms really just look like plywood walls,” she said.

Not all parents dislike the structures.

Peter Schwartz has a fourth-grader at the school.

“In a lot of ways I think they’re nicer and newer classrooms,” Schwartz said. “I think they had air conditioning before the rest of the school.”

Anastasia Zamiara, a fourth-grader at Jerabek, said the portables offer some advantages.

“We have a heater and we have an air conditioner and windows that the other classrooms don’t,” Zamiara said.

More than 30 portable classrooms sit in the back parking lot of Scripps Ranch High School in this undated photo. Megan Wood, inewsource

More than 30 portable classrooms sit in the back parking lot of Scripps Ranch High School in this undated photo. Megan Wood, inewsource

Portables aplenty

inewsource has embarked over the past few years on an intermittent series exploring factors that might explain inequities in public school education, including financial and physical differences among districts and schools themselves. We requested data on the number of portable and permanent classrooms from all school districts throughout San Diego County.

Of the 42 districts in the county, 37 provided data. They had a combined 4,590 portable classrooms, more than all of those used in the entire state of Washington,which has a population of 7.1 million people.

Overall, portables account for almost 23 percent of classrooms in San Diego County districts that provided data.

The share of portables among districts varied widely, especially among smaller elementary districts. At Vallecitos School District in Rainbow, eight of its 12 classrooms are portables, and at Rancho Santa Fe School District, all of its 62 classrooms are permanent.

The Escondido Union School District had the highest share among districts that have at least 5,000 students, with portables making up 45 percent of its elementary and middle school classrooms. Its counterpart, the Escondido Union High School District, had 7 percent portables, which was among the lowest shares for districts with an enrollment of 5,000 or more.

California does not have specific rules about how many portable classrooms are acceptable, and the only major research into portable classrooms was a comprehensive 2004 study of more than 200 classrooms statewide from the California Air Resources Board.

That study looked at “environmental health conditions” in portable classrooms, and it found a variety of concerns, including “inadequate ventilation” during 40 percent of the classroom hours monitored.

Research has shown the overall quality of school facilities can affect learning. Limited research into portables suggests they can negatively impact student success.

One study found a correlation between a reduction of portable classrooms in rural schools in Texas and improved standardized test scores.

And a University of Houston study showed a relationship between large numbers of portable classrooms and student dropouts and absences, especially at the high school level.

Peggy Jenkins is a manager at the California Air Resources Board. She was one of the principal authors of the study on environmental effects of portable classrooms.

“It’s not just a comfort issue, but inadequate ventilation leads to increased carbon dioxide levels, which we now know can produce some issues at very high levels,” Jenkins said. Mixed with high moisture, poor ventilation can also lead to mold growth and other problems.

The study found that fresh air didn’t always get in, but noises certainly did.

“About one half of (classrooms) exceeded 55 decibels, which is the level that many communities use to regulate their outdoor nuisance noise level,” Jenkins said.

Those two issues have a common cause: heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

“The teachers often felt they needed to turn them (AC) off because they were so loud they couldn’t hear the students and the students couldn’t hear the teachers,” Jenkins said. “And, of course, as soon as you turn them off then there’s no air exchange, no ventilation.”

That can lead to uncomfortable temperatures, which the Air Resources Board study found in a quarter of classrooms it studied.

At Scripps Ranch High, the window AC units don’t circulate the air enough to get the whole classroom, “so the side of the room where the window unit is is really cold and the side where it’s not is really hot,” Knoff said.

When it gets hot, the AC can have trouble keeping up.

“I’ve had (the AC unit) shut down on a day where it was over 100 degrees at Scripps Ranch, and the inside of my room was 110 degrees,” she said.

Opening a window can be trouble. Because of how close the portables are to each other, a window might back up to another classroom’s AC unit, blowing in hot air. And a teacher “who has a more projected voice,” Knoff said, might drown out a neighboring teacher.

Lee Dulgeroff is the chief of facilities planning and construction at San Diego Unified. He said portables “tend to be a little louder than the traditional classroom because they lack some of the insulation.”

They also have more walls exposed to outside noises.

And unlike permanent buildings, the only way in and out of a portable classroom is via those bright — and sometimes hot — aluminum walkways.

That can be really noisy, Knoff said.

“If you’re in your classroom and you’re doing your thing … and the teacher next door is taking their students to the library, there’s not stairways right in front of their classroom,” she said. “It’s 36 kids walking, and there’s nothing you can do. They are just loud because of the nature of what it is. So it’s a distraction until they go by.”

The Air Resources Board study didn’t measure all the challenges with portables because some are unique to a school.

At Scripps Ranch, Knoff said, the parking lot where her classroom sits can have some drainage issues, so much so that one year a principal refused to visit those classrooms during a rainy period.

And then there are the skunks. Generally, portables are elevated, so despite planks or other material, animals find a way into the space.

“Every year there’s a day or two where it smells so bad in there you can’t actually teach because the spray is so strong, ” Knoff said.

Dulgeroff said newer portables have mostly addressed issues such as poor ventilation, though he acknowledged there are advantages to permanent structures.

“I think overall the (state) study is correct that generally speaking, permanent classrooms tend to be a better teaching and learning environment,” he said.

Students and teachers can only go in and out of the portables at Scripps Ranch High through aluminum walkways. Megan Wood, inewsource

Students and teachers can only go in and out of the portables at Scripps Ranch High through aluminum walkways. Megan Wood, inewsource.

A new hope

Health concerns aren’t the only motivation for getting rid of portables. Permanent buildings can be two or more stories tall. Removing one-story portables can free up space, in playgrounds, for example.

“So it tends to be a better fit for us to replace those (portable) buildings as we can, little by little,” Dulgeroff said.

Replacement of portables is a San Diego Unified long-term goal, he said.That has reduced the number of portable classrooms in the district from a one-time high of around 3,000 to the current 1,500, Dulgeroff said.

That might soon include Scripps Ranch. According to San Diego Unified, a modernization project for that high school includes a new permanent, two-story building that will replace 12 portable classrooms. The rooms will have all the trimmings of a modern school: smartboards, microphones and tablets for the teacher and netbooks for the students.

Construction of the new building is expected to start near the end of 2016 and is estimated to cost $5 million to $10 million.

The prospect of a brick-and-mortar classroom excites Knoff.

“I’ve taught for a long time and I absolutely, positively love my job. I still love kids, you know. I still love what I do and I think it’s all really awesome,” she said. “But I wish that in my professional career I had what feels like a privilege to go teach in a building.”

Investigative Assistant Madison Hopkins contributed to this report.


Portable classrooms not always the right answer to school money question

Choosing whether to buy a portable classroom or build a permanent school building seems to be an uncomplicated decision, if you’re just considering time and money.

Portables have saved money and time for school districts, but they have long-term consequences and limited benefits.

The bill for portables can be less than half the cost per square foot of a traditional brick-and-mortar building, and they can be up and running as much as a full year before a permanent one.

But the savings aren’t what they seem to be, said Dede Alpert, a former state lawmaker from Solana Beach who focused largely on education during her 14-year career in the Legislature.

Two rows of portables sit across from each other in Solana Vista Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

Two rows of portables sit across from each other in Solana Vista Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

As portables became more permanent, parents and school administrators started asking for nicer — and therefore more expensive — options.

“A lot of people began to say, ‘They’re not cheaper, they’re not portable and maybe it’s actually dangerous to the health of children if they have to be in these buildings all the time,’” she said.

School economics

There was a time in California when portables were required. During most of the 1990s, the state said all new school construction using state money must consist of at least 30 percent portable classrooms.

The idea was portables would be cheaper for districts, with the added advantage that they could be moved around as needed, said Lee Dulgeroff, facilities chief at the San Diego Unified School District. They were also an easy answer to class-size reduction, a big push in the 1990s.

The Legislature changed that rule in 1998, but it left an incentive for school districts to maintain a certain share of portables. If they had portables, they could collect larger fees from developers to make up for the burdens new home construction had on schools.

Some of those decades-old portables are still used.

Alpert has seen them.

“I’ve been in San Diego Unified in some of these portable buildings, which are, well, they’re almost disgraceful,” she said. “They’re so old, and you know they look awful. They really detract from the appearance.”

Advantages for districts

One of the main selling points for portables is their relative low cost.

Caroline Brown, executive director for capital projects at the Solana Beach School District, saw that advantage at her district.

“(Portables are the) fastest, least expensive way to get some classrooms out there until we can figure out how to get more permanent structures,” Brown said.

Tom Duffy, a legislative advocate for the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, a school construction industry trade group in California, has numbers to support that statement.

In general, Duffy said, a traditional classroom can cost from $180 or $200 a square foot for portables to about $350 or $400 a square foot for permanent classrooms.

Portables might be cheaper at first, but in the long term they can cost more than permanent classrooms when energy and maintenance costs are included.

“You have to maintain them a lot sooner than you do a permanent building,” Brown said. For some portables, that means a new roof, ceiling tiles, carpet and maybe replacing the outer wall.

They’re cheaper at the beginning, but in the long run it can be as expensive as building a permanent building in the first place, Brown said. In just one school, Solana Vista Elementary, some portables are almost 30 years old and need to be completely remodeled. Two out of three classrooms at the school are portables.

“Pay now or pay later, right?” she said.

Energy costs can be a huge drain on district finances. San Diego County districts are facing a $30 million increase in utility costs from San Diego Gas & Electric.

An inewsource investigation last year found that a large share of school electricity bills are because of surge pricing from sudden heat waves or cold snaps that ramp up AC and heater use. Those temperature spikes could be exacerbated by the notoriously poor insulation in portables.

Documents obtained by inewsource for that investigation showed surge pricing accounted for more than half of one San Diego Unified high school’s $70,000 one-month electricity bill.

The test of time

The second popular selling point for portables is how quickly they can be set up. Adding a permanent classroom takes about 2½ years from planning to completion, Dulgeroff said.

Portable structures, on the other hand, are often pre-designed and approved by the state. They can be up and running in about a year and a half.

Portables also can be brought on incrementally. If a high school needs a new English classroom, it doesn’t have to wait for money and approval to construct a whole building.

“When you plan a new classroom building, you’re planning, you know, four or six or eight classrooms at a time,” Dulgeroff said. Portables can come in packs, or they can be purchased one at a time.

Quick addition of new classrooms has allowed districts to handle rapidly changing demographics.

A portable classroom faces the playground in Solana Vista Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. Two out of three classrooms at the school are portable. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

A portable classroom faces the playground in Solana Vista Elementary in the Solana Beach School District. Two out of three classrooms at the school are portable. April 12, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource

Enrollment has historically been a roller coaster at San Diego Unified, Dulgeroff said. It grew about 30 percent in the 1960s and 1970s, then declined during the 1980s to about 110,000 students. It then went through a second boom, peaking at about 142,000 students in 2000.

The district is down to fewer than 130,000 students.

“Portable classrooms were, I think, one means of dealing with demographic shifts,” Dulgeroff said.

The theory in the early days was that districts could pick up and move portables to meet changing demand in specific schools. That did happen in some instances, but Alpert said, portable “is really such a misnomer.”

“Once they went on a site and when they were properly anchored, they were there to stay,” she said. “You didn’t just one day pick them up and move them two days later to another campus.”

In Solana Beach, Brown said the school board is considering a  bond measure this fall that could be used to replace all the portables at three schools, including Solana Vista Elementary.

Duffy, with the construction trade group, can see a future where districts use more, not fewer portable or modular classrooms. Newer models, he said, are hard to distinguish from permanent structures.

“There’s a high school in Sacramento that is probably more than 15 minutes, 20 minutes from my office, that was put in place in a period of about nine months,” he said. “It is an entirely modular high school.”

Alpert said more emphasis needs to be put into what schools should look like in the future, and what facilities and technologies will benefit students the most.

She points at textbooks schools keep buying that teachers don’t use, or a rush in the 1990s by President Bill Clinton to hardwire all schools, which became useless as more technology became wireless.

“What is a school going to look like in 20 years?” Alpert said. “I see with my grandchildren that learning is so different from when I was in school.”

Leonardo Castaneda is a reporter and economic analyst for inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email leocastaneda [at] inewsource [dot] org.

By agreement, The Grapevine publishes investigative, in-depth data-driven journalism from independent non-profit inewsource based at San Diego State University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies. For more from inewsource, visit http://inewsource.org/about/.

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