LAS VEGAS — This year Nevada’s Clark County School District once again faced record enrollment numbers. It is one of the biggest and fastest growing school districts in the nation.
The district added more than 3,000 new students this year, as well as a new program to boost English Language Learners. To cope with their growing pains the district has put more and more children into portable classrooms.
Billie Ann Watanabe teaches a lively bunch of fifth graders, 33 to be exact. She says it’s a challenge trying to control noise in this trailer on the blacktop playground at Ronzone Elementary. Nearly half of the kids at this school are in portable classrooms.
“I do have several very chatty students, and its kind of hard to move them away from another chatty student when there’s only so many places they can go, and so many places they can sit in the classroom,” she said.
In the rather narrow, windowless room there’s little extra space for anything more than students at their desks. Watanabe said she got rid of her own desk to make more room.
She said there are other issues besides the lack of space.
“When it rains, the portables leak. So that’s not enjoyable,” Watanabe said.
Last year she said the leaks caused mold and her ceiling tiles had to be replaced. She’s also had two lights out for quite some time, and without windows, missing light bulbs make the classroom, frankly, pretty dim.
Across Clark County School District, about 20 percent of elementary school children are in portable classrooms. That’s not that unusual. At another nearby giant, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the number is an estimated 30 percent.
“We see it all over the country, that the school facilities piece tends to be thought of as very secondary,” said Mary Filardo. She is the Executive Director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for leadership and innovation in school facility issues.
"The fact that you need to respond to the demand and that you can’t do it so you’re doing it with portables, is probably a pretty short-sighted approach,” Filardo said.
Portables are not a bad temporary solution, she said, but too often they become a permanent part of school facilities.
“Building a new school is not really a feasible option for the District right now, we just don’t simply have the funds,” said James McIntosh, the Interim Chief Financial Officer for the Clark County School District.
He said one reason for Las Vegas’ classroom crunch is the district’s new plan to address English Language Learning at the some of the most heavily impacted schools. The ELL population in the district grew by more than 200 percent between 1998 and 2008, and has continued to grow. The new program sets a cap on student-teacher ratios for kindergarten at 21 to 1. That means more teachers and more classrooms at already crowded schools.
“Some of those programs have mandated class sizes that are much smaller than what the design capacity of the building is. So because of that, many times that’s why we require portables,” McIntosh said.
Ronzone is typical of many other schools in Las Vegas that rely on a high number of portable classrooms. More than 50 percent of kids at Ronzone speak English as a second language and more than 70 percent of the students depend on free and reduced lunches.
For many educators, portables are a fair trade-off if it means more teachers and smaller class sizes. Still, Ronzone’s Principal Rebecca Tschinkel says portables take up playground space and can limit teachers’ creativity.
“Some of my intermediate teachers are looking to do things that are outside the box. Doing some activities that get students out of their seats, engages them into learning. It becomes very difficult to do that in a classroom where they have that many bodies in there,” she said.
Tschinkel says the campus itself is nearly out of room and can’t house many more portables.
“We did joke about having tree house classrooms, I mean I think that would wonderful,” she laughed.
But for now, portables seem to be the only solution, the school district says its planning on adding 100 more portables within the next two years.