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Inside The Box: Part 2 Of The Portable Classrooms Investigation

The Seed Collaborative

Students around the Northwest go to school every day in portable classrooms. These classrooms are an affordable solution to budget-strapped districts that need more space.

But they can be bad for student health and performance. That’s why some districts are moving away from portable classrooms. One district in Spokane has found a solution.

Courtney Flatt brings us part 2 of our special series "Inside the Box".

Walking into the new Jefferson Elementary School is like walking into a model home. Everything looks tidy.

Students mull through a book fair in the middle of the library.

Shiny blue lockers line the hallways.

Kindergarteners play at different stations in their classroom.

Avery: “It’s been wonderful to be here, where I know that everything is brand new – it’s healthy.”

Third grade teacher Nancy Avery taught for 27 years in a portable classroom, a block from this new building. This is her first year not teaching in a portable classroom.

One of the biggest differences she’s noticed: teachers no longer feel sick all the time.

Avery: “We had teachers who had allergic reactions – skin reactions, that sort of thing – that have dissipated since we’ve moved into the new building.”

The new school also has air conditioning. It’s safer. And school principal Mary-Dean Wooley says, it smells better.

Wooley: “Those portable classrooms don’t have a masonry foundation at all, so you just have dirt underneath. It smells a lot better in this new building. That moldy, earthy smell is absent completely.”

The old Jefferson Elementary School first started relying on portable classroom space after World War II.

Construction crews tore down those oldest portables. But still, most of Spokane’s portable classrooms are more than 20 years old.

That’s one reason the district is moving away from portables faster than many other districts in the Northwest. That’s according to data collected by EarthFix and InvestigateWest.

Since 2008, Spokane has gotten rid of 20 percent of its portables.

Spokane’s solution to the portables problem was simple: school bonds.

Anderson: “It was a steady-as-she-goes kind of plan.”

Mark Anderson is an assistant superintendent with Spokane Public Schools.

Anderson says the goal was to keep tax rates flat over a 25-year development plan.

Not every school gets a complete makeover at first, like Jefferson Elementary. But every school gets something with each new bond.

Anderson: “It could be new playground equipment. It could be a roof. It could be a boiler.”

Anderson says that’s helped increase voters’ support.

Third-grade teacher Nancy Avery and her principal, Mary Dean Wooley, say they helped campaign for the bond issues. They held signs and waved at passing cars.

Avery: “Let’s see. Since 1986, how many times have there been bonds that we’ve waved signs for? I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve been on that street corner.”

Wooley: “About every three years.”

Avery: “Well, there you go.”

All that support doesn’t mean Spokane will ditch all of its portables in the years to come.

The Washington State legislature has passed rule to lower classroom sizes and add all-day kindergarten. That means districts will need more space.

Greg Brown directs capital projects for Spokane Public Schools.

Brown: “You will see more portables coming. And that may be a good solution in the short term, but in the long term…”

Brown says the district is buying four new portables to help with classroom sizes next year.

The portables are greener – their materials are more easily recycled. Builders get rid of noxious gases before they assemble the classrooms.

But there’s a long way to go in greening portables. One company in Seattle is at the cutting edge.

My EarthFix colleague, Ashley Ahearn, checked it out.

What if, instead of bad air quality, funky smells, lack of natural light and wasted energy ... portables were green?

What if they were living systems, integrated with their surrounding environment - powered by renewable energy, and healthier for students?

The Perkins School in Northeast Seattle has just installed the greenest portable classroom in the country.

Ric Cochrane designed it with Stacey Smedley. They’re co-founders of the SEED Collaborative. And today he’s showing it to some fifth graders for the first time.

Ric Cochrane: "It’s your new science cabin and it is designed to be what is called a living building and you’ve all heard that before right? Mmm hmmm.

So what does a living building do? It operates like a plant and what does that mean – what does a plant do? How does it get its energy?

From the sun. And water from where? From the rain. Exactly.”

Unlike traditional portable classrooms, which have no running water or toilets - this one has sinks and a composting toilet. That compost will be used in the class garden and surrounding landscape.

The walls of the SEED classroom are made of sustainably harvested timber and they’re not painted or plastered in. You won’t find any harmful chemicals, glues or expoxies in this portable. Students can see the electrical wires, protected within tubes, that bring power from the solar panels on the roof, to the light switches.

Rainwater flows down from the roof and into cisterns. Some of it will be used for what’s called the “green wall”.

Cochrane shows the kids over to a wall of cubbies that will soon be full of plants.

Ric Cochrane: “So we might have edibles to plant a vegetable garden, or succulents or flowers – you can do whatever you want on the green wall.”

That’s the key here, letting kids decide - Zoe Dash is the science teacher at Perkins. This will be her classroom from here on out. She says you have to let kids take control of their learning environment because that gets them more engaged with the whole learning experience.

Zoe Dash: “When they see systems like that are in this building that will encourage them to ask questions and poke around, check things out, and that is what most empowers them is when they can take their learning into their own hands.”

Joey Clark gets that message loud and clear. He’s 11 years old.

Joey Clark: “11 ½ to be exact.”

Joey likes that the building tells the inhabitants how much clean energy and rain water it’s using.

Joey Clark: "It uses all the nutrients from nature but it doesn’t just do that it shows you how it does that too and you get to interact and work with it. It has little gages and knobs and tubes everywhere that are just really cool to look at and you’d never find in a building that had it all covered up because it looks “ugly”. Everyone should have the opportunity to go in a building like this.”

That’s not the case right now. This living portable costs roughly twice as much as a traditional portable classroom. The parents at the Perkins School - which is a private school - paid for most of it.

Things are different at public schools. Taxpayers pick up the tab for new schools so administrators have to take the lowest bid. The cheapest buildings aren’t always the greenest.

But the market is slowly changing.

Companies in the Northwest and California are developing more environmentally friendly modular classrooms, but they’re more expensive than standard portables, and harder to get.

Ric Cochrane with SEED says the market’s not changing fast enough. He says building codes need to be more stringent, as do indoor air quality standards, to enforce the construction of healthier, more sustainable classrooms in the future.

Ric Cochrane: “The problem of portables isn’t going away anytime soon, but if we can make a little dent in that market and try to raise the floor on quality overall, then we win. And that’s how you change the world, is a little bit at a time.”

SEED hopes to install 6 Living Building portables this year. Right now they’ve got another one in construction in Pennsylvania.

Across the U.S. there are more than 300,000 traditional portable classrooms in use, with roughly 250,000 more in the pipeline.

InvestigateWest and Earthfix have more about portable classrooms in the Northwest.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based correspondent for the Northwest News Network.
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