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Worst portables go to poorest schools

School officials say about 1,700 portable classrooms around Florida are so old or shabby that they are fit only for storage.

But many of these portables are still housing students. And such classrooms often are placed at elementary schools with high numbers of poor and minority children, a St. Petersburg Times computer analysis has found.

Despite being labeled "unsatisfactory" by state or local officials, some of Florida's largest districts are using these portables to relieve school crowding. Hillsborough has more than 300 unsatisfactory portables still used as classrooms.

In Dade County, some 190 portables that date to 1940 are considered unsatisfactory, but they're still used as classrooms. In Palm Beach County, a principal refers to her unsatisfactory portables as "condemned."

And at Tampa's Edison Elementary, where 87 percent of the children are considered poor and 94 percent are minorities, principal Sylvia Hornsby talks about leaky roofs, unstable floors, poor ventilation and termites. Her school has nine unsatisfactory portables.

A Times computer analysis found that:

At elementary schools that have three or more unsatisfactory portables, 63 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a key indicator of poverty. Statewide, 53 percent of Florida's elementary school children are eligible for lunch assistance.

About 43 percent of Florida's elementary students are minorities. At schools with three or more unsatisfactory portables, nearly 54 percent of students are minorities.

Six districts each have more than 100 unsatisfactory portables. At four of those districts _ Hillsborough, Dade, Palm Beach and Orange counties _ roughly two-thirds of the elementary schools with substandard portables contain more poor students than the district average.

State legislators, who are meeting this week in Tallahassee to address Florida's school crowding problem, long have viewed portables as a necessary way of coping with growth. But the Times' findings raised concerns for some, including desegregation experts.

Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor and head of the university's Project on School Desegregation, said the Times' findings showed differences in the way unsatisfactory portables are being used.

"It certainly is a significant difference," Orfield said. "It deserves to be attended to."

Some state lawmakers were alarmed by the numbers. Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa, said he has noticed disparities among schools in his legislative district, which includes Edison Elementary.

"The poorest schools in the county are getting the worst portables," he said. "It's wrong. Something has to happen."

Florida's Constitution provides for a "uniform system of free public schools." But state Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, said giving poor and minority children the state's worst portables flies in the face of that.

"This is not equal, this is not equal," she said.

School officials insisted there was nothing intentional about the pattern, and even expressed surprise at the Times' findings.

Indeed, the trend is not consistent as children move through the school system. It is most clear at the elementary schools, where most of the unsatisfactory portables are used.

But at the middle-school level, poor and minority-dominated schools are actually less likely to receive unsatisfactory portables.

In high schools, the pattern again reverses, with slightly higher poverty levels at high schools with unsatisfactory portables.

Some districts, including Pinellas and Pasco, have so few schools with unacceptable portables that it is difficult to see a pattern. Others, such as Citrus and Hernando, have none at all.

George Finch, who keeps track of portables for Hillsborough County, said he was puzzled by the results. When officials move portables, he said, they pay little attention to whether they are designated unsatisfactory.

"They're not moved because they're satisfactory or unsatisfactory. They're moved because they are available and there is a need," Finch said.

School officials also explained that urban schools tend to be older and received their portables years before many suburban schools were even built. The old portables remained in place, often because moving them could cause them to fall apart.

"The areas that are the high-growth areas are far out in the suburban areas," said principal Betty Yanger of Broward Elementary in Tampa. "When that area gets overgrown, they build new portables and that's where they put them."

Her red-brick school was built in 1926. Today, nearly 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The school has five unsatisfactory portables dating to the late 1960s and early '70s. Yanger said the portables have been repaired over the years. "I don't consider ours unsafe."

Another possible reason for the pattern, school officials said, is that some counties may use the older portables to deal with sudden surges in the population of migrant Hispanic children whose parents work in seasonal farming jobs.

Finally, some of the unsatisfactory portables could wind up at schools with poor or minority students because parents in those schools may not be as vocal as parents at other schools.

"That can make a difference of what you end up with sometimes," said Hornsby, the principal at Edison in Tampa.

Still, school officials defended the use of the unsatisfactory portables, saying that not all portables labeled as such are so bad.

Under the state Department of Education's definition, portables are labeled unsatisfactory "due to compromising effects on the structural integrity, safety or excessive physical deterioration." On average, these portables are 32 years old.

That's why Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan was concerned about the Times' findings. He wanted to know: "If a portable is unsatisfactory, then it begs the question why is it still in use?"

School officials are now trying to explain that.

Paul Phillips, who oversees facilities for Dade County, said his district's 1940 portables _ the oldest in the state _ are not unsafe. The district got them from a nearby military base and they are made of southern pine "as hard as concrete" and resistant to termites, he said.

Unsatisfactory "does not mean they are structurally unsound," Phillips said. "Anything structurally unsound we don't put kids in."

Linda Budd, principal of Robinson Elementary in eastern Hillsborough County, has a different view. Her school has eight unsatisfactory portables out of 22.

"We try to minimize the impact of these horrible, old termite-ridden portables," Budd said. On the outside, "We try to keep them painted and weatherproofed and looking halfway decent."

On the inside, however, "In a lot of the older ones, there's a lot of termite damage. . . . You look up at the ceiling tiles and the termites flood out."

Other school principals said that although their portables may be labeled unsatisfactory, they had been restored.

"There's not a portable here that I wouldn't have my own children in," said Jan Plis, principal at Foster Elementary in Tampa.

There, 86 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch _ far higher than the district average for Hillsborough schools. The school's population is about 70 percent black, Plis said.

Her school has six portables considered unsatisfactory by the state, used either for music classes or students with disciplinary problems. Many of them have no windows, bathrooms or sinks.

But they are carpeted and have air conditioners. "I have in no way felt this school has been discriminated against," Plis said.

Principal Bettye Lawson in Palm Beach County has concerns.

Her school, Pahokee Elementary, is on the eastern banks of Lake Okeechobee, where farmworkers work the sugar fields and other agriculture jobs. Nearly all her students are minorities, and some 73 percent get free or reduced lunch, compared with a district-wide average of 42 percent.

Pahokee was built for 499 students and has more than 800. It has 21 portables, six of them deemed unsatisfactory.

Lawson once complained to the school district about what she considered "condemned" portables. "I was told there was no such thing as condemned portables," she said.

Her school suffers from its location, far from the county's east coast, where School Board meetings are usually held.

"My parents are not the kind of vocal advocates that really get things done," she said.

"You tend to be forgotten."