Crowded Classrooms: More Students Mean More Portables

Northern Virginia and Maryland school districts are using more than 3,000 portable, trailer-like classrooms, due in large part to rapid population growth and school overcrowding, according to school building records obtained and reviewed by the News4 I-Team.

Portable classrooms, small modular units with individual heating and lighting units, are placed outside school buildings to handle an overflow of students. The News4 I-Team found the units are an expensive and intricate investment for school districts. Many of the portable classrooms in Fairfax County and Montgomery County schools cost about $65,000 each. Administrators said the portable units require special security measures, longer walks for students and special precautions during severe weather.

Fairfax County Public Schools are now employing more than 900 temporary classroom units, including more than 20 each at Westgate Elementary, Woodlawn Elementary and Annandale High. The fast growing population in Fairfax County is quickly saturating the county’s school buildings.

“Although we are adding space through our renovation projects and new schools, the number of temporary classrooms will continue to increase,” district spokesman John Torre said.

Montgomery County Public Schools use more than 430 portable classrooms, per state and district records obtained by the News4 I-Team. A row of nine portables, each of which is approximately the size of a trailer, covers an old blacktop playground at Summit Hall Elementary School in Gaithersburg. Principal Keith R. Jones said he installed security equipment, including surveillance cameras and tall fencing, outside the portable classrooms to protect the small buildings and ensure the safety of the fourth and fifth graders who must walk between the units and the main school. Jones said the cold winter was “very, very difficult for those students,” who must walk outdoors multiple times a day.

The News4 I-Team review found Hillcrest Elementary School in Frederick County uses 24 portable trailer classrooms. County administrators said the county’s rapidly growing population has created “overcrowding” conditions at Hillcrest and 14 other schools in the district. Hillcrest’s enrollment is projected to surpass 1,200 students by 2018. Principal Kim Seiss said the school has already outgrown its cafeteria.


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“We don’t have enough room to serve 704 hot lunches to our students,” Seiss said.

They’ve spread the students onto a nearby stage at lunchtime to accommodate the crowding. Seiss said she expects to install additional portable classrooms in the coming years to handle the continued growth.

School administrators said the stormy winter and spring were particularly disruptive to students in the portables classrooms.

“Our sidewalks are muddy, our kids are muddy coming in and out of them,” Seiss said.

During the News4 I-Team’s review of Summit Hall Elementary in Gaithersburg, a powerful rainstorm noisily pounded the roofs and windows of the trailer units. Jones, the school principal, said if the storm would’ve progressed to a tornado warning, he would’ve evacuated students from the portable classrooms for an indefinite period of time.

“Weather is a challenge,” Ray Barnes, executive director of facilities for Frederick County, said. “Some of (the units) have a hard time maintaining their temperature. It’s a terrific inconvenience.”

Barnes said he strategically places the temporary units in close proximity to the classroom wings of the main school building to minimize outdoor walks for students.

Montgomery County officials, Prince George’s County officials and parents had lobbied state leaders for additional funding for school construction this winter to more quickly add school buildings and reduce the need for portable units. But the state legislature wrapped its 2014 session without doing so.

A Fairfax County school official said the portable classrooms range in cost between $32,000 and $124,000 each. The official said so-called “single unit” portables cost $32,000. “Double units” are $66,000 each. A “quad unit” costs $124,000 each, he said.

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