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What's so terrible about 'portable' classrooms? [Commentary]

SchoolsHigh SchoolsMiddle SchoolsBill ClintonState of the Union Address

There seems to be a consensus that school trailers are horrible, and there is a constant push to build bigger schools so we can get rid of the need for "portable classrooms."

At a recent community meeting, Harford school board member Bob Frisch said "nobody likes" trailers but noted they cost in excess of $40,000 just to relocate.

As an adult, I definitely understand why it's desirable to have all students in an actual brick-and-mortar building.

But the kid in me always feels compelled to remind the adult what trailers were actually like.

I had several classes in trailers in middle school and one in high school, and it was always great, especially in high school.

The trailers had their own climate control, and it was like your own little world, just for your class. The high school trailer did not have a bell (I can't remember if the middle school ones did), so we just left based on the actual clock, which was wonderful.

We were basically cut off from the rest of the school, and who wouldn't want that (at least for an hour each day)?

It gave you a chance to be outside a little, which was pretty rare during the school day. Getting to the high school trailer meant walking through a little field, so that was nice.

The middle school trailers were less interesting because they were basically just on a parking lot. The one downside I remember is you did have to walk a little farther to get to them.

But they were clustered together, so kids sometimes hung out between them, giving the trailers almost their own little sense of community.

There was also obviously way more space around the trailers than in the overcrowded halls of the school, which I guess was the idea, but it was nice just to have more room and be outdoors at the same time.

We also didn't have any euphemisms for them, and I didn't hear the words "modulars" or "portable classrooms" until pretty recently. We always called them "trailers," and I don't recall anything negative about the word.

Maybe other kids felt differently, but I never had any problem with being in a "portable classroom."

The class I had in the high-school trailer was U.S. history, where we had to watch the State of the Union address.

That year, I watched then-President Bill Clinton promise to improve education by getting rid of trailers.

(I looked that speech up again just now, and what he actually said was: "Today, too many of our schools are so old they're falling apart, or so overcrowded students are learning in trailers.")

He made "learning in trailers" sound so shameful that it really surprised me because, like I said, I loved the trailer. That was the first time I realized trailers were considered a negative thing.

I think it was also the first time I really connected the school's overcrowded state (which I obviously knew) with the existence of the trailers.

I pulled up a random, recent news story about trailers from the Richmond Times Dispatch, which leads with the assumption that "trailers are a necessary evil."

One Virginia school superintendent, however, told the paper: "We understand that being in a permanent school building is the most ideal, but we also know that our teachers provide the same quality instruction regardless of the building structure."

This is actually the bigger point I think I'm trying to make about the trailers.

In the face of the constant rush to build ever more new-and-improved facilities, I'd like to suggest that a "school" is more than just a building.

Don't get me wrong, I would love to have been in one of the spectacular, gleaming new school buildings I see built around Harford County.

But do we really need beautiful, state-of-the-art buildings, especially at taxpayer (i.e., everyone's) expense?

Maybe a trailer, or some other creative (and cheaper) structure, can actually be an alternative to a gleaming new building.

If "trailer" has a negative connotation or people don't like the look of little boxes, get a new name or design a new form.

(A senior living development would name them "cottages." A university would call them "halls.")

And maybe it wouldn't even be a "necessary evil." Maybe, just maybe, it would actually be pretty great.

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