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One School Leader Banned Cellphones, the Other Embraced Them. What Worked?

Many educators will tell you that cellphones are a source of serious academic, mental health, and behavioral problems for students. And school leaders are struggling to figure out how to deal with the cellphone problem, especially as younger and younger students get their own devices.

Developing a workable school cellphone policy is no easy task as major constituents are often at odds: teachers may want them gone while students want unfettered access to them. Parents are often divided, with some wanting to minimize distractions in class while others like the security of being able to reach their kids during the school day.

In response to these challenges, Education Week reached out to two school leaders, one in a school that requires students to lock their phones up all day, and the other in a school that encourages students to use their phones for learning in class. Both leaders claim that their approaches are working.

A middle school ban because cellphones were ‘the ultimate distraction’

Charles Longshore is the assistant principal of Dothan Preparatory Academy in Dothan, Ala. His school serves 1,200 7th and 8th grade students.

Longshore said that while he sees academic value in cellphones, he also sees that life has placed a lot of hurdles in front of his students, and that cellphones had become another one getting in the way of learning.

“We often have kids who are 7th graders who are functioning academically at 2nd and 3rd grade levels and we’re trying to jump them [ahead academically],” he said.

Cellphones weren’t just a distraction in Dothan classrooms—they were seriously undermining the school’s climate, said Longshore. Students were arguing more, and Longshore said increasing amounts of his time was spent managing discipline referrals.

A particular thorn in Dothan administrators’ sides was an anonymous Instagram account that had been created to spread school rumors, he said.

“We were never able to figure out who created it, Instagram would not help us, we appealed to them to take it down and they never would,” he said. “It was students saying, ‘so and so did this,’ or ‘so and so did that,’ or has this condition. And they would post pictures. They might be like, ‘look at what she’s wearing!’ [snapping] a picture of them in gym. Is it feasible for us to stop and check 150 kids in P.E. to see who took the photo?”

Problems that arise from cellphones and social media are difficult to police, Longshore said. It’s often one student’s word against another, or one student’s complaint against an anonymous person who posted something online.

Longshore said that adolescents have unique developmental struggles that made the situation in his school untenable.

“Self-management is one of our biggest concerns—I think COVID had a lot to do with that,” he said. “Not having that structure, I think played a role. But our population being in that rough transitional phase in their lives in general, what their minds are going through, their bodies are going through, socially what they are going through, [cellphones] were the ultimate distraction.”

That’s why administrators at Dothan decided to bar students from using cellphones during the school day, starting this school year. Students place their cellphones in individual lockboxes in their homerooms at the beginning of the day. Their homeroom teacher keeps the key to each lockbox. Students return to their homeroom for the last class period and retrieve their phones a few minutes before the final bell. That way, Longshore said, students have their phones for afterschool activities and to walk home—which makes parents more comfortable.

There are caveats to the policy, said Longshore. A few students with special needs, like those with diabetes who use their phones to monitor their blood sugar levels, can keep their devices throughout the day.

The majority of parents support the policy now and students have come to accept it, said Longshore.

The biggest challenge with the cellphone policy came before it was enacted, Longshore said. When they announced it last summer, there was pushback and a lot of misinformation—but it was nothing a couple of community forums couldn’t smooth over, he said.

The results have been extremely promising, Longshore said. He can see tangible improvements to the school’s climate. Behavioral referrals have gone down by about 20 percent. And he believes he will see improvements in students’ academic performance as well, once state test results are released.

Longshore doesn’t think Dothan’s cellphone policy is the answer for every school. High school students, for example, may be mature enough to manage their own cellphone use, and having the devices in class could be beneficial for some classroom assignments.

But for his middle schoolers, Longshore believes this policy is the right one.

A high school that encourages students to use cellphones as learning tools

In Douglass County, Colo., Chris Page is the principal of Highlands Ranch High School, which serves about 1,400 students.

In his school, students are allowed to use their phones throughout the day and are even encouraged to do so. Page had tried banning cellphones at one point, he said, but that lasted for only about a month.

“There are 100,000 ways that kids use their cellphones and the other half of this is that it’s hard to tell a kid not to use their cellphone when the adult in front of them has to use theirs,” he said. “We decided we just weren’t going to fight that fight anymore.”

Page encourages teachers to use students’ cellphones as tools in their teaching. The school provides periodic professional development throughout the year to teachers on how they can leverage the devices in their instruction—whether it be to have students look up additional information in class, access materials, use online calculators, or make videos for class projects. From science teachers to music teachers, cellphones present a lot of helpful opportunities for educators, Page said.

“We use it in our choir. Our choir teacher now makes it a recommendation that the kids have to find their pitch on their own without using the piano, […] they use their phone to play a G or B cord for them,” Page said. “It’s allowed us a little more freedom in our teaching space. In our school we have two outdoor classrooms, so it’s given us more freedom to teach in better, more unique spaces instead of trapped [in] the classroom with all of the Chromebooks because that’s the only technology we have.”

The cellphone policy isn’t a total free-for-all, Page emphasized. Even though teachers are encouraged to find uses for students’ cellphones, they ultimately have the authority to make the rules for their own classrooms and can tell students to put away their phones at any time, Page said.

If kids use their phones inappropriately—such as a student ignoring a teacher who has asked for the phone to be put away—they get two warnings before the teacher is allowed to confiscate the phone. Students can retrieve it from Page’s office later.

The school is also using more technology that requires students to have cellphones, said Page.

School administrators also frequently communicate important information to students on social media—for instance, all updates regarding this year’s prom are posted on the school’s Instagram account. Page even hosted a schoolwide scavenger hunt this year where he dropped clues on Instagram.

And the school is adopting digital ID badges which will require students to use their phones, Page said. The pandemic changed his school’s relationships with technology

“Just like most people in the country, technology became so much of a necessity,” Page said. “When COVID hit, [after] our dive into technology, we chose not to come out of the pool, and we decided to keep utilizing the technology in our classrooms.”

Overall, Page said the policy has been working well, even with some of the challenges it creates—such as kids constantly reaching out to their parents during the school day instead of taking their issues to the school counselor. The school also has to have a supply of iPads on hand for those students who forget their phones so they can still participate in class activities.

And, Page admits, cellphones can still cause distractions—he used an example of a student ordering lunch from Uber Eats during class.

But he said the school hasn’t descended into anarchy either. Only about 10 times a year, Page estimates, do students get their cellphones taken away from them.

The way Page sees it is that cellphones are here to stay and it’s the job of a high school to teach students how to use them productively.

“We are in the business of preparing kids for the next step,” he said. “There aren’t many college campuses that have no cellphones whatsoever. It’s about responsible use, and we have a duty to teach kids about responsible use.”

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