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School Districts Explore Solutions For Excessive Portable Classroom Use


Thousands of students in Washington and Oregon go to school in what are known as “portable classrooms”.

These temporary structures were a quick solution to the problem of growing population and lack of funding for school facilities in parts of the Northwest.

But many of these “temporary” structures are still around. They’re not environmentally friendly or healthy places for students to learn.

From the outside, Billie Lane’s classroom looks like a trailer home, standing in the parking lot behind the Kalles Jr. High school in Puyallup.

But on the inside, things are different.

Billie Lane: “You guys have got 5 seconds. 5 seconds to pull things together.”

The walls are lined with brightly colored drawings from Lane’s beloved students, maps of the world…and lots of action figures.

Billie Lane: “Well, it’s got several universes in here and so.. Star Wars, Star Trek, Marble Universe, Transformers, um, it’s got just about everything because I like to play.”

A giant Star Wars R2D2 stands in the corner. Lift up his round head and inside you’ll find bottled water.

That’s because there’s no running water in this temporary structure. There is no restroom.

And when the bell rings, Lane’s students often walk through the rain to their next class.

This is one of the more than 1,300 portable classrooms in Washington.

The Environmental Protection Agency says portable classrooms can have poor ventilation, inadequate lighting and cheap building materials that release harmful chemicals into the air.

Billie Lane’s made the best of her situation. She cleans and dusts her portable every day, and overall it’s in pretty good shape, despite being more than 20 years old.

But she’s seen far worse.

Billie Lane: “Some of them smell really bad. Some of them, the lighting is really bad. It’s dark. It’s dank… It sets a tone.”

And research shows that going to class in portables makes it harder for students to learn.

In a portable classroom outside the Geneva Elementary School in Bellingham 20 or so kids dance and sing during music class.

Dave Blake may be enjoying the music, but he’s also thinking about all the CO2 those kids are exhaling. He’s an indoor air quality specialist with the Northwest Clean Air Agency. He’s tested 3,000 classrooms, just like this one, around Washington State.

As the kids file out of the classroom, Blake pulls out a device that looks like a cross between a windsock and a lampshade. It’s a device his friend rigged up to funnel air down from hard-to-reach vents to make it easier to measure CO2 levels.

Dave Blake: “The sock brings the air down to the instrument so I don’t have to stand like this and reach up there and it just works great.”

He holds the sock up to the vents in the ceiling of the portable and then writes down the CO2 measurements.

Dave Blake: “So inside we have 3700, roughly 1450, 800… 1, 2 and 14."

High CO2 levels tell Blake that students are breathing in too much of their own exhaust - taking in germs from coughs and sneezes that hang in the air, along with dust, allergens and the chemicals in building materials.

The levels here look ok, but some monitoring in the state found higher CO2 levels in portables than in regular school buildings. And Blake says that affects student attendance rates.

Dave Blake: “If carbon dioxide levels are high they impact student performance. And we got statistically significant results that as CO2 goes up, so does absenteeism and it’s notable that it’s a little worse in portables.”

But despite problems with indoor air quality, school districts around the Northwest are buying more portables every year – and keeping these supposedly “temporary” buildings in use well beyond their life expectancy.

Take the Puyallup school district. Portables make up 20 percent of the classrooms here. That’s four times the national average – and the highest percentage in the state. With more students on the way, the problem is only getting worse.

That’s something Rudy Fyles stresses about a lot. He’s the Chief Operations Officer with the Puyallup School District.

Rudy Fyles: “It’s looking like we’re going to pick up about 2,000 students in the next 6 years. And, the inn is full.”

Last year, and several times before that, Puyallup voters shot down a bond measure to fund the construction of new schools.

Meanwhile, Washington State is in the process of adding all-day kindergarten, but the state will not provide funding for new schools for all those new students, it’ll just pay for the teachers. So, Fyles says, that means more portables in his district.

Rudy Fyles: “We’re going to be adding 14 more this year to accommodate full-day kindergarten. So we will have 220 portable classrooms starting next school year.”

Buying a portable is significantly cheaper than building a new school, but portables cost more to maintain as they get older. And as free-standing buildings, they’re more expensive to heat and cool, and less energy efficient than newer buildings.

But if you ask students, the problems with portables extend beyond air quality issues, energy inefficiency or lack of running water – to something deeper.

Hannah Peterson is a student in Ms. Lane’s 7th grade math class. She’s been in and out of portable classrooms for her entire education. She says going to school in a portable makes her feel like a second class citizen.

Hannah Peterson: “For me, it feels as though our district isn’t taking us seriously as students, when they take what is supposed to be a temporary structure and make us deal with it, because there are all kinds of small technical issues that make our daily learning environments more difficult. It feels as though we’ve been kind of pushed off to the side and I feel a little bit ignored.”

Hannah gathers up her books and walks out into the rain on her way to her next class.

In the coming years, Hannah Peterson and her classmates will go on to study in Puyallup High School, where more portables await them. For Peterson and other students in public schools in Washington and Oregon, that may not change any time soon.

This story was produced in partnership with InvestigateWest. Find out how many portables are in your school district, see a video and more.