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Portable Authority

With student populations constantly growing, school districts across the country are scrambling to provide adequate and accessible classroom space. Lack of funds for new construction and renovation projects has prompted school districts to find a viable alternative. To relieve some of the pressure from overcrowded classrooms, many districts are turning to portable classrooms.

A quick fix Dade County Public Schools, Fla., made the move to portable classrooms after experiencing an unprecedented student growth. Currently, approximately 2,400 portable facilities are used as classrooms, media centers, cafeterias, restrooms and labs at 248 sites.

Deputy superintendent Henry C. Fraind says that portables are desirable because they can be delivered to the site quickly, and they are movable. The district purchases prewired portables with finished interiors and air conditioning. When the permanent building is painted, Fraind says, the portables at that site are painted the same color.

The Francis Howell School District, St. Charles County, Mo., has had portable facilities since 1983. Patrick Houlihan, director of administrative services, says the district has portables for several reasons. First, the district has the oldest continuous school operation in the country, which means year-round schooling for students in grades K to6. Also, the 18,000-student district is growing.

"When you have a rapidly growing district," says Houlihan, "you have a lot of portables."

The portables also have become supplemental. Houlihan says the district has an increasing number of portables to supplement sites as new schools are built.

Currently, the Francis Howell School District has 18 units, some singular and some double classrooms, which are continually upgraded. This year the district is eliminating three singular models that are windowless and replacing them with two double-classroom units.

"We try to make it as easy as we possibly can on the students and teachers who utilize the building," says Houlihan. The district places portables 20 to 30 feet from the permanent school building, and ensures that they are handicapped-accessible, hard-wired to the fire-control system, have an intercom and are secure. The interiors are completely finished with carpeting, chalkboards, acoustical treatment and skirting. The heating and air conditioning for a portable are supplied by a single-unit system.

Houlihan says the portables are attractive and, for the most part, the district paints them in a neutral color so that they blend with the existing structure. In some cases the portables may be hidden behind the building. In other cases, they will be placed in front of the building to alert the community to the growing need for space.

Keeping up appearances Charles Rector, maintenance director at Warren County Public Schools, Ky., treats maintenance in portable buildings and permanent structures the same. The district has a preventive-maintenance program, so tasks like maintaining the doors and changing HVAC filters are performed regularly.

Like other districts, the Francis Howell district has to follow certain state and local codes, such as national fire codes. It also makes sure that the portables are a certain distance from the building, have a site plan, are securely tied down, and meet wind requirements. Because the district does not install or order plumbing, the location of bathrooms and electrical services must be taken into consideration.

Most of the portables in the Francis Howell district have maintenance-free exteriors. Houlihan says if the district moves the portables frequently, then it might have to address some roof work. After so many moves, the integrity of the building is sacrificed. His district has had to phase out five buildings in the past 15 years. However, he says, "The cost to maintain them is minimal or non-existent."

Dade County's Fraind finds that portables require a greater degree of maintenance. He says that specific maintenance is required on things like windows and doors, although Francis Howell's Houlihan believes that any building requires some standard upkeep.

Dade County staff addresses increased maintenance requirements by scheduling more visits to school sites. Portables require increased maintenance and have a shorter life span than regular facilities, Fraind says.

Looking to the future Because portables have a shorter lifespan, some districts look to build smaller buildings at existing school sites. For example, Dade County is looking specifically at primary and middle-school learning centers at existing school sites, to alleviate overcrowding. These smaller buildings, which are permanent structures, also require less maintenance in the long run. However, Dade County will continue to use portables for many years.

Alternatively, the Warren County Public Schools removed the last of its portable classrooms last year, says Rector. At one time the district had 30 portable classrooms due to overcrowding, but it stopped using them because they felt that it was little discriminatory toward students who had to be in them instead of the buildings.

"It worked," says Rector. "It just wasn't ideal."

The Francis Howell district, which has an extensive building program, eventually would like to eliminate portables and create more space for students. While the district would not want a community of portables, they have served the district well in its particular situation, says Houlihan.

"I think for the most part the portables in the Francis Howell School District are sort of an accepted thing," says Houlihan, "but the goal is to have no portables eventually." Students and staff who use the portables seem to enjoy both the facilities and being out of the mainstream of traffic, he says.

Recently some school districts have come under fire for not taking the necessary precautions to protect students who are being educated in portable classrooms from tornadoes.

Any school located in a tornado alley needs to be prepared for the worst, particularly if overcrowding has pushed students into portables. Here are a few preventive measures that can make a difference:

*Even if state and local laws do not require regular tornado drills, school officials can hold drills at their discretion. Have tornado drills as often as the school has fire drills.

*Make sure alarms can be heard from portable classrooms. If not, classrooms should be connected to the school office by an intercom.

*During tornado seasons, pay attention to storm alerts from the National Weather Service. However, school officials should not rely on these warnings completely. Some school officials do not wait for a tornado warning to evacuate portables; instead they empty out portables during a tornado watch.

*Tornadoes can arrive suddenly and without warning. If students cannot make it to core facilities in less than five minutes, then the portables should be closer to the school.

*Larger portable classrooms may not be much safer than smaller ones. Inspect anchors regularly.

*Never keep students inside a portable classroom during a tornado warning. Education should take a backseat to safety.

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