School districts relying less on trailers

Packing 30 students into a single-wide trailer and expecting education to ensue can test both the most experienced teacher and  the most motivated pupil.

Shouting to be heard is the norm, especially when students in  South Cobb High School teacher Doug Snyder's Spanish class are practicing new vocabulary in teams of twos.

"Part of my policy is to make the kids aware it is a small space and they are on top of each other," Snyder said. Single-wides are just over half the size of traditional classrooms.

"At times it gets kind of loud in here," said sophomore Brittany Evans.  "You can't hear the teacher. At times it gets kind of hot,  just walking from my last class to here."

Students and teachers have long complained that the weather is a factor -- trailers get too hot in the summer, too cold in the winter and during storms, students sometimes have to relocate into the main building.

"To do that, you have to take them out into the weather, where they can get drenched or slip and fall in mud," said South Cobb principal Ashley Hosey. "And [then] there's no room for them in the building."

It's just not pleasant teaching or learning in trailers--an icon of suburban growth once used liberally to relieve overcrowding in schools. But reliance on them is now on the way out, school officials say.

In the last five years, metro Atlanta school districts have moved toward their long-range goal of providing permanent classroom space for all students. Despite continuing increases in enrollment, schools have rolled more than 1,000 trailers off their campuses. School officials say better planning and SPLOST funds have led to better pacing of constructing new schools and permanent classrooms.

Nowhere is that more evident than Dacula Middle School, once the poster child of portables, where in 2002, there were 100 trailers in use. Today, there are none.

Where trailers do remain hooked up in metro districts, officials say most are parked short-term.

In Cobb for example, two schools with 20-plus trailers each are constructing freshman centers that will eliminate the need for those trailers.

"As a parent, I am not thrilled at the prospect of our students being housed in trailers for the duration of the renovation," said Wheeler parent Ruth Sussman. "However, realistically, I believe that it is the most advantageous option."

Portables are acceptable as a temporary solution, parent Bob Brackin said.

"Very few parents would think having class in trailers is as good an environment as a classroom," Brackin said. "But for a short-term of a year or 18 months while renovation is under way, that's the kind of compromise parents are willing to accept. When trailers are a long-term solution to a space problem, that's a pretty big negative."

Here's a look at trailer use in the last five years in the largest metro Atlanta school districts:

Cobb County

Cobb County, the metro area's second-largest school district with 107,000 students, has 290 portable classrooms,  down from 375 last year and 509 in 2005.

South Cobb High School with 29 has the most portables, followed by North Cobb High School with 22.  Both schools have Freshman Academies under construction and the trailers will be eliminated once those additions are completed.

"We're all quite excited about getting out of the portables," said South Cobb Principal Ashley Hosey. The school's portables house math, foreign language and behavior intervention programs.

Fulton County

While Fulton County student enrollment has grown steadily through the years, the number of portables has declined, district spokeswoman Allison Toller said. In 2005, enrollment was about 80,000; projected enrollment this year is 92,000.

The district has 184 portable classrooms, down from 300 five years ago, Toller said. The key was SPLOST money, she said.

"Certainly,  SPLOST dollars (a one-cent sales tax for capital improvements) have greatly assisted us in our building programs," Toller said. "[It] allows you to build and pay as you go."

DeKalb County

Schools spokesman Jeff Dickerson said the DeKalb County district leased 389 trailers and owned 274 for a total of 663 units in 2005. In 2010, the total is 450 units.

"We use portable classrooms only as needed," Dickerson said.

Gwinnett County

Gwinnett County Public Schools, the metro area's largest school district with 160,988 students, cut in half the number of trailers used as classrooms in the last five years, district spokesman Sloan Roach said. In 2005, there were 1,270 portable classrooms on campuses and this year there are 601.

"Trailers have been an effective way to address the rapid growth GCPS has experienced," Roach said. "That said, our goal through our building program is to address our classroom needs with permanent classrooms."

She said GCPS opened seven new schools and a home for the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology this year. Last year, the district opened nine new schools and one replacement school; and the year before that, three new schools and two replacement facilities. The district also completed additions at several existing schools, Roach said.

"Talk about a success story,"  Roach said, singling out Dacula Middle School where there were 100 trailers in 2002 and today there are none.

The Dacula cluster of schools, including the middle school and four elementary schools, was about 3,700 students over capacity, Roach said. The problem was solved by building and opening the Middle Creek cluster of schools, which includes a high school and two middle schools.

Atlanta Public Schools

Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Keith Bromery said APS has 38 portable buildings with a total of 69 classrooms (some buildings have two classrooms in them).

He said the structures meet or exceed state requirements for instructional facilities and have the same features as permanent structures in terms of electrical, water, sewer, security, data, video and IT infrastructures.

While they're a relatively quick way to relieve spikes in enrollment or other needs for additional space, they are fairly expensive to set up, Bromery said, because they are required to have the same infrastructure and furnishings as permanent classrooms.

By the numbers

2005-2006 Enrollment                                                         Number of trailers

APS 49,965                                                                                     Not available

Cobb 105,526                                                                               509

DeKalb 99,544                                                                               663

Fulton 79,192                                                                               184

Gwinnett 143,980                                                                       1,270

Sources: Ga. Dept of Education, School districts

2010-11 enrollment                                                                Number of trailers

APS          48,869                                                                            38

Cobb 107,000                                                                                   209

DeKalb          98,000                                                                        450

Fulton           92,000                                                                           184

Gwinnett       160,988                                                                         601