Schools adapting cell phone policies to changing times

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It's a sight that draws the consternation of older generations everywhere: Teenagers with the faces buried in their cell phones.

On any particular day in Tracy Bridgman's classroom, it's nothing out of the ordinary.

Bridgman teaches science at St. Teresa High School in Decatur.  Already a school with one of the more relaxed cell phone policies in the area, Bridgman's classroom includes cell phones, laptops, and tablets as part of curriculum.  Include the day's wifi password on the whiteboard, and her class is about as 2017 as it gets.

"It's definitely more freedom, to just take my phone out and look things up," said Addison Newbon, a 9th grader in Bridgman's class.

About 75 miles west, in Jacksonville, there's a much different policy: Have your cell phone out at school, and get it taken away overnight.

"They may pick it up at the end of the next school day," said Nick Roscetti, Routt Catholic principal.

Routt Catholic's policy reads: Such items are inappropriate for school hours and distract from the educational process.

The punishment seems to work for them.

"It does keep some people from trying it. They don't want to lose their phone for the rest of the day," said Lily Marshall, a junior at Routt Catholic.

High school policies are reflecting the deep divide between those who view cell phones as a necessity, and those who see them as a nuisance.

A WAND survey asked 40 area high schools about their policies.  Of those:

- 4 (10%) effectively ban cell phones at school.
- 6 (15%) keep them out of the classroom.
- 15 (38%) have a "use them at lunch only" policy.
- 22 (55%) have no restrictions on cell phones, with the exception of common courtesy in the classroom.

All four schools which ban cell phones in school have enrollments less than 300 students.

Eisenhower High School in Decatur resides in the middle ground with a "lunch only" policy. While they don't tell students to stow their cell phones away, they don't want them out between classes. Principal Dr. Amy Zahm spends class breaks repeatedly pointing to her ears - the well-known signal for "remove your earbuds."

It seems tiresome, but it works better than mass confiscation for a school with about 1,100 students.

"We try to teach them social skills that they're going to use in real life," said Dr. Zahm. "When they go to college or in their work they're not going to have someone confiscate their cell phone at the door."

That's not to say cell phones aren't a distraction. Recent studies show they're the number one cause of distraction driving, and they've even given rise to a new medical condition call "text neck."

For educators, the problem is more grammatical. Some administrators say text shorthand, emojis, and the urgency of communication is noticeably affecting reading comprehension and student attentiveness.

"(Teachers are) finding that they have to go back to some of those basics with grammar, spelling, and speaking," said Jason Schreder, principal at St. Thomas More High School.

St. Thomas More has a ban on cell phones, asking students who bring them to leave them in their lockers until the end of the school day. Schreder said they see a real anxiety among teens feeling the need to check their phone every few minutes.

"I guess we're hoping to build that character, and virtue of patience," he said.

Tracy Bridgman sees that as part of her job as a teacher, applying practical uses to a device that's going to exist with or without a ban in schools.

Through an app called "Schoology" she can dole out assignments, set up quizzes, and track real-time progress of her students - something she never could do before. She can also track whether or not a student leaves the app.

Parents can get access, keeping an eye on how their children are doing in class.

"They like it. They just want me to stay on task," said 8th grader Madison Prasun.

"If you're out of town and you don't have your Chromebook, or you don't have wifi, you can use your phone," added 8th grader Emmery Kovalcik.

Bridgman said overall student achievement in her science classes has never been better. 

"The older adults that I talk to that have a problem with it say, 'They don't know how to communicate anymore.' And I say, are you kidding?" said Bridgman. "These people are talking to people all over the world. Did you do that? No."

A misconception of the technological movement in schools is that it's rendered classic ways of teaching obsolete.

Student are still reading novels, putting pencil to paper, learning cursive writing, and getting their hands dirty when needed.

"There are still microscopes that we bring out and they use, they still do chemical reactions, and they still do all those hands-on lab." said Bridgman. "The difference is their lab report goes into their phone."

Even Roscetti admits Routt Catholic's policy is probably a little behind the times, though even they have laptops for students and exceptions for personal devices in class, with prior approval.

The lone unanimous sentiment among the schools WAND surveyed is that their policy "works for us." Those policies are just trying to keep up with our ever-evolving relationship with technology.

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