Special needs students are segregated in ‘cramped’ and ‘unstable’ portables, parents say

On rainy days at Starr Elementary, second-grader Greyson Kelly didn’t get to leave his portable classroom even for lunch, his mom Chrissy says.

His special day class was too far from the main building, across a walkway that would fill with puddles, leaving Greyson and his classmates inside portables that were cramped, unstable and lacking in natural light, according to Chrissy Kelly.

“It’s segregation,” she said. “No general education students spent all day in those portables.”

Kelly has spoken at several Fresno Unified School District board meetings to urge the board to replace the portables at Starr and other campuses, and to move special education students into main buildings. She says it's an essential step to better integrate students like Greyson, who has autism, with the general education population.

The district has passed two tax measures since 2010 that each included provisions to remove or replace unneeded portables and construct classrooms in their place. Money from Measure Q, passed in 2010, funded portable replacements at four elementary schools and four high schools.

Measure X, a $225 million bond passed in 2016, so far has not provided for any portable replacements, according to the most recent expenditure report presented to the Citizens' Bond Oversight Committee in April.

Assistant Superintendent Alex Belanger said the facilities office is aware of the specific need at Starr Elementary, and is also looking at equity throughout the district.

“There will always be more projects than there is funding," he said. "Ultimately, inclusion is the goal."

A list of projects available on the district's website includes portable replacements at seven elementary schools, plus a $5 million early learning and special education update at Starr. The list is more of a wishlist, according to Belanger, drafted with the input of various community members who have ideas about what they'd like to see done at the district.

Belanger said that principals at each site are responsible for designating classroom space. Some teachers also prefer portable classrooms for the ability to control their own environments, according to Belanger.

Portables make up half of all classrooms at Fresno Unified elementary schools, and one-third of classrooms district-wide, according to the facilities master plan.

They are a fixture of special education at the district according to Greyson’s father, Michael Kelly.

“It’s always the portable that’s farthest away from everything else,” he said.

Chrissy Kelly said the physical distance this creates between her son, who has autism, and general education students reinforces the false notion that kids with special needs should be kept separate.

“Having special needs is already an isolating condition, and having autism makes socializing difficult for these students,” she said to the board in January 2017. “These children do not need physical segregation added to their struggle."

The six portables at Starr are home to the Autism Special Day Classes, a motor room for students with sensory needs and a music room. They have been used this way since the 2010-11 school year, according to Fresno Unified spokeswoman Jessica Baird.

Readers might be familiar with Greyson, whose friendship with the garbage man was featured in The Bee and NBC Nightly News in 2013. The third-grader is now adjusting well to homeschool, Kelly said, but misses his peers at Starr.

Erika Ryman, whose son attends a class for mild to moderate special needs at Figarden Elementary, said even newer portables aren’t the best environment for students in special education.

The thin walls and windows that look out onto the parking lot are a distraction to students who may already have a hard time focusing, she said.

“You wouldn’t have that level of distraction in a traditional classroom,” she said.

Figarden has portables for third-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes, as well as special education classes and a music class.

A 2004 study of portable classrooms in California found them to be poorly lit and ventilated, with toxic residue in the floor dust and high formaldehyde concentrations in the air.

Additionally, the report found that noise level in portables is too high, exceeding in half of all cases the standards for many communities’ outdoor noise regulations. Sources of the noise include HVAC equipment and lighting, as well as nearby outdoor activities.

Chrissy Kelly says it’s disappointing that the district has focused on the construction of new high school pools instead of fast-tracking more permanent classrooms for special needs students. A new aquatic complex at Roosevelt High is under construction and another at McLane High is in the design process.

She believes the current setup is a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees a free appropriate education for children with special needs.

“I’m not asking for extras,” she said. “I’m asking for basic facilities that serve the most fundamental needs of children.”

Aleksandra Appleton, 559-341-3747, @aleksappleton