This past school year, more than 86,000 students in the Austin Independent School District woke up and went to class each day. For a growing number of those children, their learning is happening inside portable classrooms.
AISD has almost 650 portable classrooms. The district bought most of them in the 1980's and 1990's. But dozens were purchased before that – some as early as 1952. Many teachers and parents say time is taking its toll on what was supposed to be a temporary solution to deal with overcrowding.
In the past year alone, teachers had to deal with rat and ant infestations, mold, and cracks in the walls of portables.
“There was a crack in the side paneling of the main wall where you could see directly outside, and there was black mold underneath the sink but, fortunately enough, we put in a work order and that’s already been fixed," Zilker Elementary teacher Katie Weaver said.
Another elementary school teacher says, one time, she had to kill a scorpion after it fell from a portable ceiling on to a child’s neck. She did not want to be identified in this story for fear of losing her job.
That teacher also says her portable classroom has a toilet inside it – which can cause other problems. The toilet has overflowed multiple times, seeping into the classroom. She says the bathroom floor was replaced because it was rotted by urine and toilet water.
“I think between moisture and everything that happens in there, they just get really stinky and they’re not probably cared for or updated as often as they should be, so I think that has a major effect with it all," Weaver said.
Murchison Middle School principal Sammi Harrison says the portables on her campus are in pretty good condition. But she says the portables at Murchison don’t have individual bathrooms.
“It probably helps to have them separate," Harrison said.
However, some teachers like having their own bathrooms inside the portable because it means students don’t have to leave the classroom to use them.
Teachers interviewed for this story said the biggest issue is a lack of space.
“We kind of bump into one another bit, good that we have our age group, when they used to have fourth and fifth grade your classes can get up to 32 kids and those kids’ bodies are a lot larger," Zilker Elementary teacher Jodi Wynn said.
At Murchison, sixth graders are in the portables. Principal Harrison says teachers have found ways to manage the space.
"Some teachers have the kids put their backpacks at the front of the room or against a wall so it’s easier to move around the classroom," Harrison said.
Austin School Board Trustee Gina Hinajosa says while some teachers like that portables give them their own space, a majority of the parents she’s spoken to raise safety concerns.
“They’d rather have their children learning in permanent structures," Hinajosa said. She thinks the district has too many portables.
Zilker Elementary parents have been vocal about their dislike of portables.
“We really wanted classrooms with real windows because it’s such a huge difference from actual classroom to the portables. Our second and third grade is out in portables and some special education programs and it’s a huge difference when you move from huge, sunny classroom in first grade and you into a portable in second grade; it’s like night and day," parent Jacquie Benesante said.
However, a 2008 study conducted by a professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia found learning in a portable versus a permanent classroom does not impact student achievement. The report was published in the Journal of Educational Administration. The study does not consider the effect of a portable’s age on student performance.
AISD Facilities Director Paul Turner says the district routinely does maintenance on the portables, mostly by request from teachers and principals.
“Our approach to it has been to try and continue to work on them, you know, keep them functioning," Turner said.
He says as the district looks toward the future, it should reevaluate the lifespan of some portables.
“That is an area that we’re going to have to take another look at," Turner said. "The question about some of them that have been here for 50 years or ones that we may need to think about retiring. We need to study that again, looking at some data about cost benefit and whether or not there are some of them that have reached the end of their lives and see what the right strategy would be going forward."
But if there’s one thing everyone agrees on, including Murchison Principal Sammy Harrison, it’s that portables aren’t temporary in AISD.
“The expectation is that we’re just going to expect to have portables. It's just something that’s not going to go away," Harrison said.
Murchison Middle School will add two more portables to the existing 14 on campus.
In May, Austin voters rejected a school bond proposition that would have devoted millions of dollars to building new schools and adding classrooms to get rid of some portables. District officials say AISD will not reduce its reliance on portable classrooms.
On Wednesday, KUT will examine AISD's plan for portable classrooms in the future.