Schools and Trailer Parks

Posted by Sarita Subramanian and Doug Turetsky, June 25, 2009

As the school year winds down, kids at more than 100 city schools may be thinking it’s the last time they’ll be going to class in a so-called Transportable Classroom Unit—more commonly known as a trailer. In fact, thousands of students will again be calling a trailer their classroom come September, and probably for many Septembers more. It wasn’t always supposed to be this way.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s five-year school construction plan for city fiscal years 2005-2009, his first under mayoral control of the schools, included the goal of reducing the use of transportables to just swing space when a school building was being repaired, and to completely eliminate their use by 2012 (see IBO’s School Capital Plan Counts on More Seats, Falling Enrollment to Ease Overcrowding).

As of the 2007-2008 school year, there were 402 trailers in use at 131 schools. That meant nearly 10,500 elementary and middle schoolers called a trailer their classroom (because high school students don’t have home rooms, there is no enrollment data for transportables separate from a high school’s main building). Numerous schools had multiple trailers parked in their schoolyards: At P.S. 19 in Queens, for example, 245 children attended class in five trailers.

So it may come as no surprise that the Mayor’s latest five-year school construction plan for 2010-2014, which the City Council approved last week, no longer aims to eliminate the use of transportables.

The trailers came into increasing use in the 1990s as rising enrollments swelled well past the capacities of many school buildings and the news media featured stories about classes being held in closets, hallways, and perhaps most vividly, bathrooms. The Giuliani Administration saw the transportables as a relatively quick and cheap way to temporarily alleviate school overcrowding until more seats could be added in new or existing school buildings. The assumption was the trailers would be gone in about 10 years.

As the city has added classroom seats and enrollment leveled off, overcrowding eased in some places. But there are many schools that remain overcrowded, and many of the trailers are overcrowded too.

In school year 2007-2008, trailers at 93 elementary and middle schools citywide were at an average of nearly 121 percent of capacity. That meant more than 6,400 students attended class in overcrowded trailers.

In Queens, where school overcrowding has generally been highest, there were trailers at 40 schools containing classrooms for more than 4,000 children, with average usage at 111 percent of capacity. It was a bit tighter in Brooklyn, where trailers at 27 schools were at an average of 119 percent of capacity. But it was even more cramped in the Bronx: trailers at 20 schools were stretching their seams at an average of nearly 134 percent of capacity. Manhattan and Staten Island had relatively few trailers.

With multiple transportables at many schools, the schoolyards can sometimes look more like a trailer park than a play space for kids. The lack of play space at many schools has been of particular concern to Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who has introduced a bill that would require the education department to report annually on the availability of outdoor play space at city schools and the continued use of transportables.

The Bloomberg Administration has also recognized the effect of trailers on the availability of schools’ outdoor play space. The just approved 2010-2014 school construction plan makes note of the PlaNYC long-term initiative to ensure that there is a playground within a 10-minute walk for every child.

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