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Thousands of City Students Have Trailers For Classrooms

By Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska | September 20, 2012 6:56am
Trailers in the city school system
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Dora Sinha

NEW YORK CITY — At bustling Richmond Hill High School in Queens, the school yard is jam-packed with students.

But they are not playing basketball, football or handball. Instead, the kids are attending class in 11 trailers that are crammed into the space.

There are so many trailers — temporary units that house students because of overcrowding — that the yard has been divided up into "streets" with names such as "Achievement Avenue" to help students find their way to class.

The trailers are used to house the school's freshmen class, sparking a divide among some of the student body between those who get to be in the main building and those stuck outside, students say.

“When you are a freshman you want to be in the main building, with all the other students,” said senior Sara Gene, 17, who spent her freshman year in a trailer.

“Sometimes it was raining or it was cold. It wasn't very pleasant to go outside.”

The situation that Gene and others at Richmond Hill experienced is not unique — more than 8,000 city students from pre-kindergarten to high school took classes in trailers in the 2011-'12 school year, the most recent year for which data from the Department of Education is available.

When it comes to trailers, Queens is king, hosting nearly half the city's trailer classrooms, with 155 spread among 55 of the borough's approximately 330 schools.

That's nearly double the 83 trailers in Brooklyn, in 29 of the borough's more than 550 schools. The Bronx has 85, spread over 26 schools that year.

In Manhattan, by contrast, just four of its more than 320 schools use 21 trailers, and in Staten Island seven schools use 13 trailers, according to the DOE data.

The distribution of the trailers, has some pols and advocates fuming.

“Queens already bears the burden of many of the city’s budget shortfalls, and our students should not be subjected to learning in such subpar conditions," said state Sen. Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria), who earlier this year wrote a letter to the district Community Education Council asking for financial support for the overcrowded P.S. 11 in Woodside.

"For more than a decade, our students have been forced to make do with outdated and deteriorating portable classrooms, which are not conducive to a good learning environment."

While some schools had one or two trailers as of 2010-'11, others had more than 10. Three Queens schools had 11, as did a school in The Bronx.

And while the number of trailers, or temporary classroom units (TCUs), citywide has decreased slightly from a high of 402 in 2007-'08, it has remained at nearly the same level for years. 

In the 2011-12 school year, there were 357 trailers around the city, about the same number as six years earlier, when there were 368.

The condition of the trailers, which were installed a decade ago to help relieve overcrowding, vary from school to school. Some, parents and teachers say, are nice and cozy, while others desperately need repairs.

A decade ago, Arthur Goldstein, an ESL teacher at Francis Lewis High School in Queens, asked to teach in one of four trailers at his school after his regular classroom was divided in half to fit more students. The other half of the classroom was occupied by a different class, making it difficult to teach.

After a couple of years, the trailers his school used as classrooms started to fall apart, said Goldstein, 57. “They were in really bad condition,” he said.

“There were holes in the floor and kids could fall through.”

Three years ago, Goldstein filed a safety grievance and the trailers at his school got fixed.

“Now they are just regular, disgusting trailers,” he said, noting that when air conditioning is broken in summer or the heater doesn’t work in winter, conditions become “brutal.”

“It’s not right to treat kids like that,” he added.

Many schools in Queens struggle with lack of space for students. According to the Community Education Council in District 30, some schools in the Western portion of the borough function at 125 percent of their capacity.

“Queens is the most overcrowded borough in the city," said Jennifer Harper, a council member.

By comparison, one of the few schools with trailers in Upper Manhattan, at I.S. 349, had 15 units in 2010-'11. The school has since moved, but the The Equity Project charter school has taken over the trailers on Audubon Avenue.

The DOE's Capital Plan identified the need for 32 new school buildings in Queens with a total of 15,676 seats. Citywide, approximately 50,000 seats are needed.

Of the Queens seats, 1,782 are in construction or have been recently completed.

This month, five new schools and additions have been opened in Queens, Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

But advocates said the new space won't solve the problem.

"Queens has long been the most overcrowded school district and the population of school children is still growing fast in the borough," said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization that advocates for class reduction in public schools.

"The Department of Education has not kept up with the enrollment growth in terms of school construction."

Schools have a variety of ways to deal with the overcrowding.

At Francis Lewis, there are 13 periods, while most schools have 9. And I.S. 25 in Flushing decided that 8th graders would have lunch at 9:45 a.m. because there is not enough space in cafeteria.

Students in other schools are sometimes forced to study in hallways or half-classrooms. Trailers are another way to cope with the problem.

But some parents say that trailers are overcrowded, too.

"They're packed up like sardines in the classroom. There's no room," said Christine, 35, who declined to give her last name. Her son attends first grade at P.S. 96 in the Bronx and his class meets in one of 11 trailers.

"If one of them gets sick, they all get sick," she said.

Next year, the city is planning to build a permanent addition at P.S. 96 to replace the trailers, with construction expected to be completed by 2015.

Christine said she welcomed that plan, particularly because the current setup means students have to shuffle back and forth between the trailer classrooms and the actual school building several times during the day for lunch or to go to the nurse's office.

"They're too little to be outside," she said. "They could walk away."

Haimson said the current administration has failed to keep its promise to eliminate the trailers that were meant to be temporary and whose useful life is between 10 and 20 years.

“In 2006, Mayor Bloomberg promised to eliminate them by 2012,” she said, recalling news reports on trailers being infested by rats, mice, insects and mold.

Bloomberg reportedly backed down from the promise in 2007.

However, the DOE said that “the number of [trailers] has been steadily declining by about 10-plus units per year citywide over the past few years,” a trend that is expected to continue, Feinberg wrote in an email.

Every school maintains the trailers differently. Many use them for the youngest children.

For example, at P.S. 85 in Astoria, four TCUs are currently used for pre-kindergarten and two kindergarten classes.

Many parents at the school said they were actually glad that their children study in the trailers. “They are very self-contained,” said Jennifer Collado, 41, who works for a music software company.

Two of her children attend the school — Dylan, 5, and Olivia, 9.

“Trailers have bathrooms, which is great for younger children,” she said, adding that they also have AC, while the main school building is not air conditioned.

Naidre Miller, 46, who has her 5-year-old son Julian in Kindergarten at P.S. 32 in Carroll Gardens, where there are seven TCUs, had a similar opinion.

"I think in a perfect world the school building would be big enough to hold everyone, but the schools have grown, the neighborhood has grown and having the kids in (in the trailers) is the next best solution," she said.

Additional reporting by Jeanmarie Evelly, Victoria Bekiempis and Natalie Musumeci