Trade School: Charter Learning Center teaches your children well—in storage containers.


The Bay Area is home to the nation's most aeronautically capable of helicopter parents. It is also home to any number of capable schools, able to offer our children a solid, structured education.

And one such institution a short jaunt down the Peninsula will soon be located within a rather odd — though solid — structure.

The 22-year-old San Carlos Charter Learning Center claims to be the state's oldest charter school. It may soon be the first housed within recycled shipping containers.

“Parents are worried it'll smell like salmon and there'll be no windows and we'll have to let the kids in through big metal doors,” says school director Stacy Emory. Those concerns, she says, are misplaced. “This appeals to our community aesthetic. They're extremely energy-efficient. And very modern-looking.”

That's definitely so; the high-end homes and public buildings designed by Long Beach-based Growth Point Structures are light, airy, and resemble the world's most elegant trailer-park structures. Shipping containers, to the surprise of nobody, are easy to ship. They're also far faster and cheaper to erect than conventional buildings; at around $150 a square foot, Emory says a container school would be half the price of a brick-and-mortar one.

Converting hulking metal boxes into a school is not a fly-by-night endeavor. It's scrutinized by California's Division of the State Architect — which, for now, will allow repurposed shipping containers to be stacked up only to two stories for schools (they're piled eight to 10 high on ships, and Growth Point is proposing a 20-story structure in Southern California). The state standard for a classroom is 960 square feet. A container is 8-by-40 feet. Push three together and do away with the middle walls and, voila: 960 square feet.

The proposed new home of the San Carlos Charter Learning Center will require “68 or 69” Chinese-made former containers, says Lisa Sharpe, Growth Point's senior vice president. Modern-looking box schools are, Sharpe continues, the upside of this nation's massive trade deficit: Many more containers are arriving here from China than vice versa. A container school will be composed of 85 percent recycled material and meet the state's seismic standards for schools.

Growth Point has already landed two contracts with the Los Angeles Unified School District and, Sharpe says, had preliminary discussions with San Francisco schools.

Patrick Otellini, San Francisco's director of earthquake safety, says the San Carlos project is “really cool,” and notes that city parents wary of putting their kids in a cargo container could do worse. And may already be.

After years of negotiations, a 2014 city ordinance requires private schools to submit an evaluation of their quake readiness within three years (but not necessarily fix it).

The big one, of course, may not wait that long. And, then, being inside the box will have its upside.

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