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Deltona, Suncoast to replace portable classrooms with modular concrete buildings

It was time for times tables in Leila Pinkava's third-grade class. • "What can you tell me about multiples of 10?" Pinkava asked her students at Deltona Elementary School one day last week.

The 18 students sat in rows of desks situated two by two and pushed toward one side of the tiny portable that sits in a cluster of the temporary structures in the rear of the Deltona Boulevard campus.

Pinkava stood just a foot or so away from the front row, near a Smart Board — an interactive white screen that students can manipulate by touch.

"Multiples of 10 can be odd and even numbers," one student volunteered.

Try again, Pinkava said.

Yes, they're even numbers.

Lesson learned.

But Pinkava still has a multiplication problem of her own to worry about. She had 18 students last week, but expects to get two more on Monday. Space is already tight.

"I look at the room and I'm thinking, where am I going to put these babies?" she said.

She'll have to make do this year. But relief is on the way for both Deltona and Suncoast Elementary, a school on the other side of Spring Hill that has plenty of portables, too.

The Hernando School Board last week approved two separate construction projects totaling more than $13 million to increase student capacity by as much as 500 at each school.

Suncoast, on County Line Road just east of Mariner Boulevard, will get a two-story building featuring 14 classrooms, an art lab and a music room. In addition, the nearly $6.5 million project will include a renovation and expansion of the existing cafeteria.

Deltona also gets a two-story building with 12 classrooms and a media center. As part of the district's $6.8 million investment, the existing media center and several classrooms and administrative areas will be renovated.

Construction could begin by the end of the year at both schools. The modular, concrete buildings go up quickly, and the plan is to have the new buildings ready for next fall, said Carol Cowan, a project manager for the district's facilities department.

The extra space can't come soon enough, principals at both schools said.

Suncoast has about 85 students in portables this year, down from about 200 last year. That's because more than 100 students were moved out of four portables and crammed into makeshift classrooms so the portables could be hauled away to make way for the new building.

"We're bursting at the seams," Suncoast principal Jean Ferris said.

Deltona currently has about 200 students in 17 portables, principal Betty Harper said as she stood in the shadow of one of the gray, drab buildings that sit together like barracks. Four other portables are sitting empty and will be moved to make room for the new building.

"We're just making do, but this is not where we need to be," Harper said.

Packed 'like sardines'

It didn't take long for Deltona to get crowded.

Built for a capacity of about 740 students, the school opened in 1990 with about 100 students fewer than that. By the mid 1990s, trucks dropped off the first portables.

The school now has an enrollment of about 850 students, Harper said.

About the same time the first portable arrived at Deltona, Suncoast sprouted from a sandy lot next to the Spring Hill Regional Hospital.

Nearby neighborhoods like Seven Hills and East Linden Estates were already well established. Still, when Ferris arrived at Suncoast as an assistant principal in 1999, the school built for 750 students had empty classrooms.

A few years later, officials were shocked when more than 1,000 students showed up to the school with the orange-sherbet colored roof and breezy courtyard.

"We squished them in like sardines," recalled Ferris, who was named principal in 2002. The first portables arrived.

By then, the temporary classrooms that tend to look more like singlewide mobile homes or construction site trailers had become a fixture at many of Hernando's schools. This fall, 217 portables dot campuses, though not all are in use.

As much pain as the burst housing bubble has caused across Hernando, the pop came just in time for several schools, including Deltona and Suncoast.

Each school was projected to hit an enrollment of 1,000 students this year. Suncoast has about 910, Deltona about 850. The downturn in the market has given the district time to catch up by adding capacity and shifting school boundaries, a process called rezoning, said Amber Wheeler, the district's planning and growth manager.

"If we were continuing to grow at the percentages we saw a couple of years ago, it would have definitely been worse," Wheeler said.

Last month, the School Board decided to sell 52 portables that were no longer needed.

While the new additions at Deltona and Suncoast will help, it's still unclear whether the extra room will take the schools out of the rezoning picture next year, Wheeler said. Officials had expected a new K-8 school north of Weeki Wachee to figure prominently in that process, but the School Board is split on whether to build the entire school in time for fall 2011, just the elementary portion or to hold off on the entire project indefinitely.

Still, the district's plan is to have all elementary students in brick and mortar in five years, though all of the schools are projected to be at 100 percent capacity.

Making do with less

Teachers at Deltona and Suncoast say they do what other teachers in portables do: try to make the best of a less than ideal teaching environment.

The rooms can be as little as half the size of a typical classroom. Many lack closets and bathrooms. They can be faintly musty or downright stinky.

Trips to the main building in downpours usually mean damp clothes. The threat of severe storms can prompt an evacuation, so teachers keep crates of supplies at the ready. Teachers in portables say they tend to feel disconnected from their colleagues.

One day last week, the floor of second-grade teacher Erica Enriquez's portable shook as her students came to collect a math assignment. Enriquez is in her fifth year at Suncoast and her second in a portable.

"It was a big adjustment," Enriquez said. "A lot of my stuff I just had to get rid of because there wasn't room. The hardest thing is working in groups because there's just no space for it, so they end up sitting on the floor."

This year has been especially tough at Deltona. Smaller spaces like resource rooms that can fit up to 15 students are being used for classes. That means more students — as many as 28 — for teachers in regular classrooms.

Both principals praised the positive attitudes of their respective staffs, and teachers praised the kids' ability to learn in cramped quarters.

"If you have a good teacher, it doesn't matter where they're at," Ferris said.

That said, teachers at various grade levels in both schools have already started lobbying for space in the new buildings, the principals said.

Pinkava, the third-grade teacher at Deltona, says she'll be happy anywhere. She was on the faculty when the school opened and is now in her third portable.

"I'm ecstatic," she said. "Can't wait."

Times photographer Will Vragovic contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Deltona, Suncoast to replace portable classrooms with modular concrete buildings 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 1:12pm]

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