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Portable classrooms can't eliminate underlying space problems


Portable classrooms are the trailer parks of the school world -- getting no respect and giving back just as little aesthetic pleasure.

But those clusters of portables don't bother some teachers and students, who find them downright cozy on the inside.

"I call it my little one-room schoolhouse," said Edna Mae Wasmer, a fourth-grade teacher at William Winchester Elementary School in Westminster. She's taught in portables for six of her 22 years at Winchester, and likes them just fine.

"I've told her [Principal Patricia Dorsey] as long as she says I can stay out here, I'll stay here," she said.

Her students like the portables, too. They have air conditioning; the rest of the school does not. They like having their own restrooms. None of the students interviewed at Winchester feels as if they aren't part of the school.

But don't tell that to the state Interagency Committee for Public School Construction. Officials from Carroll and other county school districts spent Tuesday asking for more money to build schools to keep up with a growing suburban enrollment.

Schools are vying for about $75 million in state money set aside for school construction, but their requests total about $229 million.

When school officials start talking about all the portables they have to add, the assumption is that portables are a bad thing.

But they agree that today's portable classrooms are not inherently bad. The problem is that the crowding that necessitates portables doesn't alleviate the stress on the rest of the building.

"As you add more and more portables, you don't change the facilities like the cafeteria, the gym, the bathrooms," said Donald Pyles, principal at Sykesville Middle School. His school, more than 200 students over its capacity of 855, has eight portable classrooms behind the building.

When students go inside the building to eat, use the library or change classes, administrators feel the pinch. Students in the portables attend art and music classes, which need special rooms.

Class period changes emphasize the crowding, said Vernon Smith, director of school support services for Carroll County Schools.

"You have this mass of humanity in the hallways that become very crowded and congested because we've overcrowded the building," Mr. Smith said.

Maybe that's why some students like to stay in their little portable rooms.

Fourth-grader Greg Metille could think of only one drawback: "We don't have drinking fountains."

First-year teacher Michele Becker, whose class shares a two-room portable building with Mrs. Wasmer's students, likes the intimacy of the portables, which are smaller than regular classrooms and have much lower ceilings. She also enjoys the feeling of being just a little separate from the main building.

"It's their environment," Mrs. Becker said. "They're just happy to be in a warm place where someone cares about them."

"I think they're better because we don't have lockers [in the hall outside the rooms] and I don't hear the noises when they shut their lockers," said McKenzy Hunter, a fourth-grader in Mrs. Becker's class.

Carroll County's portable classrooms are indeed portable, Mr. Smith said. Some school systems buy more permanent and expensive modular additions that are attached to the main building, but Carroll has stayed with the portable rooms that are erected at least 15 feet away.

The buildings can be removed from the concrete pillars they have for a foundation and hitched to a tractor-trailer to move to another school that needs them.

Next summer,the portables that now make up the Mechanicsville Elementary School Annex on North Center Street will be dismantled and moved to various other schools.

Moving the six units, each of which has four classrooms, will cost $330,000, Mr. Smith said. The cost of buying a portable varies by size and number of rooms. The last portable the county bought about two years ago, a two-room unit at Northwest Middle School, cost $85,000.

Although some manufacturers produce portables and modular additions with brick veneers to blend with existing buildings, Mr. Smith said Carroll schools traditionally have opted for the less expensive "generic" portables with neutral siding.

"If we bought them at the Super Fresh, they'd be wrapped in black and white," he said.

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