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Trailer Trash?

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For example, in May the Richmond Times-Dispatch broached the subject of the fleet of trailers that double as classroom space for crowded schools in Chesterfield County, and the Chesterfield Observer reported in October on the capacity issues that county schools face in using nearly 300 trailers.

These articles, and others like them, tend to play out thusly: Parents lob complaints about their children having to leave the confines of the traditional schoolhouse; school board members decry their lack of control over the process and lay blame at the feet of the planning commission and/or board of supervisors; some teachers talk of preferring the "learning cottages" to the more distraction-prone school environment; and pro-trailer interests promote the efficiency and lower costs of these "mobile classrooms" compared with the increasing expense of building new schools.

On the surface, the advent of trailer usage may feel problematic, and for those who prefer to see students receive their entire education inside the brick walls of a school building, that is understandable.

However, when we probe a bit deeper, the trailer issue is more complex, with several factors at play that demand that we look at this issue more holistically, including those pesky nuances that are often lost in heated policy debates.

First, the overcapacity of the county schools is partly a symptom of the top-notch education and high quality of life that attract parents — especially those new families that are filling up the sprawling planned communities — to Chesterfield. Despite their critics, the fact remains that Chesterfield enjoys an excellent reputation among the school districts in the commonwealth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the selection of former county superintendent Billy Cannaday Jr. as Virginia's Superintendent of the Year in 2005 and his recent tapping as state superintendent of public instruction by Gov. Tim Kaine. By most reasonable metrics, Chesterfield is educating its students well, and people want their kids to be a part of that environment.

Second, the overcapacity issue can be blamed in part on the county's reluctance to spend precious taxpayer dollars on new school construction in a time frame that would completely satisfy the increased demands. While there are truly needed upgrading and replacement of some facilities, in a perverse sense, using trailers represents a measure of fiscal prudence. Sure enough, new schools and all of their accoutrements are a source of civic pride for a district and for parents. But with the constantly increasing construction and transportation costs that the economy has witnessed in recent years, trailers are simply a lot cheaper to accommodate.

Third, the overcapacity and resulting trailer usage have not necessarily been linked to lower educational performance. As the news articles note, a number of teachers actually find advantages in the separate facilities, not the least of which are the ongoing potential for distractions normally found in a regular building. Conversations with teachers in Chesterfield and other districts support this notion.

The research presents a mixed picture. While studies do indicate that the physical environment of classrooms affects student achievement, the conclusions revolve mostly around issues related to air conditioning, cleanliness, lighting and noise. Other factors, such as direct access to computers, also play a role. National trade groups actively promote mobile classroom structures, and the federal government highlights some models as eco-friendly alternatives to bricks-and-mortar projects.

Trailer classrooms are not without their drawbacks, however, in terms of braving bad weather and the ever-present fears for student safety. Still, the argument has not sufficiently been made that trailers, on their own, are detrimental to a student's education. The short answer is: It depends.

On a personal note, this writer is young enough to recall being educated in the same types of trailers during his grade-school years. I grew up in rural Virginia, and my school district could not afford to add physical capacity and build new schools to the same extent as wealthier districts like Chesterfield. As a result, our schools had to rely on "learning cottages" to relieve overcrowding. Sure, we students were not happy to be taken out of the traditional school building to attend classes in trailers, but our sentiments were more a reflection of our desires to socialize and make mischief than our concerns for high-quality educational environs.

The physical separation seemed to work better for some of our teachers, giving them more control over classroom discipline and more flexibility to experiment with instructional methods that may have raised a few eyebrows in the more traditional setting, where administrators, central office staff and various public officials roamed the halls. The trailers used by our regional governor's school did indeed become incubators for student and teacher talent and creativity, the result of which is at least one writer whose words you are now reading. On balance, the trailers not only measured up to the regular classrooms, but in hindsight, they were much, much better.

Undoubtedly, the issue of trailer usage will continue to vex high-growth localities like Chesterfield. Until school capacity, residential development, public infrastructure and revenue streams come into closer alignment, the issue will remain a hot-button one for citizens, politicians and the media alike. In the interim, all one can hope for is that all sides consider the issue in a thoughtful (even educated, perhaps?) manner. Acting like children will not help us to educate them. S



Conaway B. Haskins III is a writer who lives in Chesterfield County and publishes the blog www.SouthoftheJames.com.



Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.



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