LEARNING ADDITION Trailer use increases with enrollments


There were a few little problems in Ed Leibe's speech class recently, although none of them involved teaching.

The ceiling sagged a bit, one window appeared to suffer from a broken hinge and the air conditioner hummed so loudly it had to be cut off during most of the class.

Otherwise it was business as usual at Broadneck High School, even though Ed Leibe doesn't actually teach at Broadneck but in a trailer that sits beside the Anne Arundel County school.

Just for the record, school administrators don't officially call them trailers. They prefer the name "relocatables," and for several years they've been put into use increasingly at schools across Maryland, particularly in suburban counties ill-prepared for the rapid residential growth of the past five years or so.

In Baltimore's suburbs alone, more than 250 relocatables are being used to accommodate more students than their schools were designed for.

The scene inside Ed Leibe's trailer class one recent day, however, seemed not unlike that inside any other school classroom.

Each pupil had been asked to talk about three things they carry with them all the time. Some made their presentations awkwardly, some were shy, some confident.

There was Scott who displayed his watch, learner's permit and a piece of gum, because, he explained, "it tastes good."

And there was Susan, who showed a tube of lipstick, a piece of jewelry and a sample of her crystals before proclaiming assuredly that "I believe in crystal images and new wave religion." No one seemed encumbered by the fairly average size of the room or less-than-ideal aesthetics.

In fact, many Broadneck students are old hands at being taught in what amounts to a box car placed on cinder blocks.

Ed Ritger, a 17-year-old senior in Ed Leibe's class, says he's been taking classes in relocatables since he was a sixth-grader in South Carolina.

"I don't mind the classroom itself," he said. "But it is kind of a pain to walk outside, especially in the winter time."

His views appear typical. The people who use relocatables generally express feelings both pro and con. Many seemed resigned to the necessity for trailers, some teachers saying they even prefer to be assigned to them.

"I would actually ask to be back here again next year," said Leibe, who likes the idea of a closed classroom that eliminates the distractions common in open-space buildings, where classrooms have no doors or even walls to enclose them.

Leibe acknowledged inconveniences associated with working in a relocatable, including being isolated from colleagues and having to move books and equipment back and forth from school to trailer. He expressed less concern about the age or condition of the unit itself.

While Leibe's relocatable has a vinyl facade, some newer models are made of brick and are difficult to distinguish from permanent structures. In places such as Howard County, relocatables are often connected to the main school building by boardwalks sheltered by awnings.

The average relocatable costs between $33,000 and $50,000, said William French, vice president of Commercial Modular Systems Inc., a Hagerstown firm that is one of the few regional suppliers of movable classrooms.

Such prices make relocatables attractive compared with the high cost of new, permanent construction.

At Broadneck High, where the current enrollment is 1,100 students and is expected to peak at 1,800 in about five years, Principal Larry Knight said an expansion of the 8-year-old school is estimated to cost about $16 million. That project isn't expected to begin for several years.

Rapid growth in the suburbs over the last decade hasn't been matched by the willingness of state and local governments to fund new school construction. Whereas two decades ago the state funded 90 percent of all new construction approved, the 1980s saw that percentage dwindle to between 50 and 75 percent.

Some local jurisdictions have been resistant to foot a larger share of the bill, while others have moved ahead with new school construction with only the hope of receiving reimbursement from the state.

Still, schools can't be built fast enough. And state planning officials announced last week they expect student enrollments to climb an additional 18.3 percent by the year 2000, more than double the projected national average.

In the face of that kind of expansion, necessity may continue to overtake any negatives associated with trailer classrooms.

In Montgomery County, where growth already has taken on legendary proportions, the relocatable concept has not only been embraced but taken a step further. One new school in the county, Strawberry Knoll Elementary, has been constructed as a core, permanent facility -- limited to a gymnasium and cafeteria -- surrounded by relocatable classrooms.

The idea is that when the school's enrollment declines the classrooms can be removed and transported elsewhere, while the remaining building can be converted to a community center if a school is no longer needed.

In Howard County, where Board of Education officials 10 years ago vowed never to use relocatables, 35 free-standing classrooms are currently in operation.

"People come and beg the board for them," school spokeswoman Patti Vierkant said. "They would much rather have their kids in relocatables than in large classrooms."

Parents may in fact feel more resigned than elated about relocatables.

Said Antoinetta Ritger, Ed Ritger's mother: "If I had a choice, I'd rather not have them. But I don't know what the alternative would be. These days, it seems like a fact of life."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad