Portable classroom on deck for Centennial

CHAMPAIGN — When students arrive for classes this fall at Centennial High, the entrance to the school will have a whole new look.

Docked in front of the main entrance will be a used portable classroom trailer — similar to ones you'll find now outside three overcrowded Champaign elementary schools.

It will be leased from another district and run Unit 4 about $50,000 in the first year and $20,000 a year beyond that, officials say. Hoping it's just a temporary addition, the school board OK'd the move last month, explaining that there were no better 2014-15 options for a high school stuffed beyond capacity.

"It's a 50-year-old building," superintendant Judy Wiegand said. "Space is tight."

This is what overcrowded schools will soon look like in Champaign, Wiegand said, and it's the biggest reason the district will ask voters to approve a hefty property-tax increase come November. If approved, the bulk of the funds would go toward Champaign's two high schools — $80 million for an all-new Central, according to early estimates, and between $35 million and $40 million for a spruced-up Centennial.

Wiegand took her case to News-Gazette readers Sunday, laying out the district's case in a guest editorial. She hammered home a familiar message: Both Central and Centennial are at 103 percent capacity — designed to accommodate 2,673 between them and currently at a combined 2,747. That figure is trending upward, Wiegand said, with kindergarten enrollment reaching record highs in each of the past three years.

For at least the short term, the solution to overcrowding at Centennial means a trailer. It will sit in front of the high school — as opposed to somewhere less-prominent — because of access to nearby utilities and Internet availability. That will help cut down on costs, district officials said.

No decisions have been made on which students — or teachers — will use the unique accommodations.

"At this point, literally any class that can be taught in a traditional classroom is on the table," Centennial Principal Gregory Johnson said. "Once we go through our registration process for next year and get an idea of sections needed in different courses, we'll make this decision."

What are Centennial students in for? No one knows better than the 21 in Jeff Hayes' fifth-grade class at Barkstall Elementary.

Barkstall is one of five Unit 4 school buildings using portable classrooms this year, joining South Side and Robeson elementaries, Jefferson Middle School and the special-education program at Columbia School, said Unit 4 spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart. (Urbana schools have none, according to spokeswoman JoAnne Geigner).

Like Centennial, Barkstall ran out of classrooms. It was built to accommodate 426 children and now has about 500, principal Jaime Roundtree said.

"We chose the fifth-graders to attend class in the portable classroom because we felt they would be more responsible learning outside of the main building," Roundtree said.

"I think it is great that the school thought we were responsible enough that we could attend classes in this classroom this year," fifth-grader Katelyn Hemming said.

Katelyn likes the warmth of the portable classroom, compared to other chillier ones she's been in inside Barkstall.

Others enjoy not having to worry about being too noisy. There's no teacher in a classroom next door telling them to pipe down.

"We like to sing out a lot in our classroom, especially when we sing happy birthday to someone," fifth-grader Bayara McDonald said. "We don't want to interrupt the other classes at our school, so I'm glad we're out here."

Hayes admitted to having had mixed feelings when he learned his class had been selected as the one to occupy the trailer on the northwest side of the building.

"Was I really excited about it?" he said. "No — because I understand the limitations. But I was willing to make the sacrifice for the betterment of all considered."

The new digs have a few drawbacks, he said. Among them:

— The weather. Imagine going back and forth, inside and outside, all day in the bitter cold we've had this winter.

"It is hard on the kids," Hayes said. "We make about 10 trips to the main building every day. Granted, it is only 20 or 30 yards to the main building, but the kids are still affected by the weather. I tell the kids that they are certainly welcome to wear coats when they go in and out."

— The flies. Hayes originally thought the unique location would offer a great outdoor teaching environment. He even went to a carpet store to buy mats for the kids.

The winds wiped out that idea — "It is hard to do any work, even with clipboards, because paper is blowing all over the place" — and that was nothing compared to outdoors obstacle No. 2.

"I found out right away that the kids don't like the bugs," Hayes said. "You've got to be able to deal with bugs when you are outside, too."

— The lack of plumbing. Every time a student needs to use the restroom, they have to hoof it to the main building.

The lack of a water fountain or faucet is another obstacle.

"Because of all the work we do in science and other areas, it would be nice to have water," Hayes said. "I have a guinea pig as a pet in the classroom, and I have a plant here, and they need water. So I brought water containers into the classroom for emergency use."

And with isolation comes a more serious concern of Hayes' — the issue of safety.

"Is it secure being in a portable trailer?" he said. "That certainly is an issue that needs to be addressed by the district if they are going to be using more and more portables."

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rsp wrote on February 10, 2014 at 10:02 am

I remember taking an electronics class in a trailer like that back in the 70's at Jefferson. It had stairs so none of the kids in wheelchairs could take the class. Back then they taught life skills like reading blueprints and how to rebuild an engine. How to use a hammer. Things that could get you a job. Instead of school board members trying to sell us on how many football fields we need, and a big sports complex. Because that will get them employed. Secure their future.