Education Lab

See how many portables are at your campus. Fresno Unified may add more

The portables at Starr Elementary by the parking lot.
The portables at Starr Elementary by the parking lot. Special to the Bee

Fresno Unified is looking to add more portables to its campuses in order to reduce class sizes, an effort that’s at odds with bond measures aimed at removing modular classrooms from schools.

The board of trustees approved Wednesday a “piggyback” agreement that gives the district the option to purchase portables at a discounted rate. The nature of the agreement doesn’t obligate the district to buy the portables or spend the $2 million allocated, but the district is forecasting a need for more space.

“Based on preliminary evaluation, a number of portables will be needed to accommodate 2019/20 school enrollment and programs,” the agenda item said.

Data show that several campuses already have more portables than traditional classrooms, and that in some cases, there’s an economic division: 12 out of 14 elementary schools that have more than 50 percent portable classrooms are located in neighborhoods where the average income is less than $40,000.

At another 12 elementary schools, more than 40 percent of the classrooms are portables.

The district does better at the middle and high school levels, where only Phoenix Secondary School and Design Science High have more than 50 percent portable classrooms. Most other secondary schools have less than 20 percent portables.

Portables have been criticized in the past by parents of special needs students at Fresno Unified, who say that they’re often used to segregate special day classes on the edge of campus, making it harder to include special education students in general education classrooms and activities.

A 2004 study also found portables tend to linger on campuses for years, becoming fixtures rather than temporary solutions to a need for space. They were found to be louder than traditional classrooms, with other environmental issues that affect students with asthma in particular.

Reducing the number of portables and replacing them with brick-and-mortar classrooms is one of the goals of Measures Q and X, passed by voters in 2010 and 2016, respectively.

Chief Operations Officer Karin Temple said that Measure Q projects at the high schools have removed “close to 100 modular classrooms.”

Temple said that preliminary projections show 10 campuses will need more portables, but that the recommendation is not final. She would not specify which 10 campuses are currently projected to need portables.

Part of the need for more space is due to an agreement with the Fresno Teachers Association to eliminate combination classes and reduce class sizes, according to Temple.

“The need for additional classroom space is not due to significant projected enrollment growth, although there are some schools where an increase is anticipated based on enrollment modeling,” Temple said. “The need for additional classroom space is based on utilization of classrooms. Over the past several years, the district has added programs and student support services that increase space needs.”

Temple said that the agenda item is to give the district the flexibility to purchase more portables, as the inventory has been depleted due to the expansion of preschool and transitional kindergarten, music and after-school programs and academic, social-emotional and special education student support services.

Although increased enrollment is not as much a concern in the next school year, schools are often at the mercy of population booms and busts throughout the city. Some that were originally built to house a much smaller population now must accommodate a growing neighborhood: King Elementary in southwest Fresno, for example, had a steady population of about 400 students until the 2014-15 school year, when enrollment jumped to 600 students.

Fresno Teachers Association President Manuel Bonilla said that if the portables will be used for more classroom space, he supports the initiative.

“I’m confident if you asked a teacher whether they would rather have a portable classroom with a smaller class or a traditional classroom with a large class, they would choose the portable with the smaller class size,” Bonilla said. “There is a way to have the portables as a temporary solution to the issue of large class sizes, and then use that bond money for a more permanent solution.”