Portable classrooms, increasingly common in Park City, seen as imperfect solution
January 3, 2019
Residents may have noticed the small additions outside some of the school buildings within the Park City School District. Parents and staff jokingly refer to them as "learning chalets." More commonly known as portables, the buildings are utilized as outdoor, additional classrooms.
In recent years, some of Park City's schools have maxed out their capacity. The increase in students has forced the district to supply portable classrooms in order to create more space. The district currently has seven portables: two apiece at Trailside Elementary School, McPolin Elementary School and Treasure Mountain Junior High and one outside the district office. Todd Hauber, the district's business administrator, said that the portables are necessary due to high student enrollment and course programming demands.
Though the portables look like storage sheds on the outside, they are almost identical to a regular classroom on the inside, complete with projectors, desks, chairs and whiteboards. But for teachers and students, the experience of being in the portables is different than being in a classroom within the main building.
At Trailside Elementary, fifth-grade dual-language immersion students are in the portable classrooms. Lori Drivdahl, a teacher in one of the portables, does not think that being outside impacts the students' learning, but she said it makes her job more challenging.
I wish he was (in the building) because of what is going on in today’s world. If one of them is going to the bathroom, trying to get to the other building and there’s some emergency, that’s a little scary.” Mary Pierce Griffith, parent
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"If I have to make copies, I have to plan ahead because it's not like I can have someone cover my class while I run and make a copy really quick," Drivdahl said. "Or talking to teachers if I want to collaborate, it's like taking a field trip every time I have to do something or find somebody."
She also said that doing art or science projects is difficult because the portables lack running water and often necessary supplies. Drivdahl has combated that drawback by staying more organized and learning to adapt. The problem she can't solve is how lonely it can get in the portables.
"The biggest negative drawback is that we are isolated and separated from everyone else," she said.
The principal of Trailside Elementary, Carolyn Synan, agrees that isolation from the rest of school is the biggest downfall of the portables.
"I sometimes don't see those teachers because if they don't come in for lunch, I miss that contact with them," she said. "One of our teachers was out there for at least two years and she just came in and now I can actually communicate with her. You have to make a real effort to go out and I'm not usually out there."
Students are also impacted by some of the negative aspects of the portables. Niko Zarkos and Gabe Griffith, fifth-graders in the portables at Trailside, said that their classroom was roughly 80 degrees in August. They also said that because they are in the portables, their teachers are less lenient about letting them use the restroom.
"They are really strict about how many times we can go to the bathroom. We can only go in between classes, so that's annoying," Griffith said.
Some parents are also concerned about the safety aspect of the isolated classrooms. They question whether the students outside the main building would be adequately protected if there was a shooting threat or another emergency.
"I wish he was (in the building) because of what is going on in today's world," said Mary Pierce Griffith, Gabe Griffith's mother. "If one of them is going to the bathroom, trying to get to the other building and there's some emergency, that's a little scary."
Synan said that Trailside, along with the other elementary schools in the district, recently installed fencing with gates that remain locked during the school day as a safety measure for the students outside. Drivdahl also said that the doors to the portables can only be opened with a security badge, which also helps control the flow of people in and out.
At Treasure Mountain Junior High, the portables sit near S.R. 248 in the parking lot of the school. There is a three-sided fence around them serving as a barrier between the students and cars. Treasure Mountain's principal, Emily Sutherland, agrees that safety is an important part of the discussion about the portables.
"It's sometimes hard to communicate if there were a safety issue or something. Sometimes the people in the portables aren't exactly sure what's going on," she said.
However, she also said that the school is combating the issue with an updated speaker system and that the teachers in the portables are equipped with emergency supplies. Like other schools in the district, Treasure Mountain is in close contact with the Park City Police Department and can have officers on the scene in minutes in the event of an emergency.
Synan, as well as other officials, hope that the portables are a temporary solution. Hauber said that on average, each portable costs the district about $130,000 to construct and maintain. The cost serves as incentive to remove the need for them as soon as possible.
According to Trailside's enrollment data, the student body has been slowly decreasing since 2015. From 2017 to 1018, the student count went from 499 to 461 students.
"Our current fourth grade is a big class, so then they'll go into fifth next year and my hope is that that would be the last year we would need them," Synan said about the portables.
Hauber said that, in general, the elementary schools have large older grades and smaller younger grades. Summit County's birth rate has also been declining, so the hope is that, once the larger classes move on, the current buildings will be able to house all students. However, there's also a constant flow of people moving into Park City each year, which could prevent student enrollment from dropping in upcoming years, Hauber said.
Hauber also said that the district has considered grade realignment as an alternative to the portables for easing the overcrowding issue. Officials have also explored expanding the district's facility footprint. In 2015, voters rejected a bond measure that would have funded a new fifth- and sixth-grade school and an expansion of Park City High School. The Park City Board of Education has since continued to discuss potential capital improvements, and the district recently started a fresh master planning process. Both Drivdahl and Synan think that building a new school within the district or remodeling a current school is something the community should consider again.
"I think that long term, if we're busting at the seams and we're having them in portables and there's a safety issue since we're isolated, then it should be considered for sure," Drivdahl said. "The biggest question is what's best for kids and are we funding what's best for kids?"
Sutherland is doubtful the portable classrooms will disappear anytime soon.
"I don't see them being gone until, or if, we have a brand new building or we had major changes here, like if they add three or four classrooms, then they could remove the portables," Sutherland said. "We can't support the programming we want in this district without making some changes in the facilities."
While student enrollment at Treasure Mountain hasn't dramatically increased over recent years, it's stayed constant at a little more than 800 students. In October of 2012, Treasure Mountain had a count of 710 students.
Sutherland is also a member of the district's steering committee, a mixed group of educators, parents and students tasked with coming up with the district's long-term plan. Her hope is that the community would be willing to put money toward new facilities if the plan is clear.
"I think the steering committee is making sure that we're very clear on what the values of the community are for education and that whatever is planned, in another bond for example, is super clear to the community," she said. "(The schools are) a priority and the community agrees on that, but the direction and how those funds would be used is still in question."
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