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Cell Phones In JCPS Classrooms: 'A Step That We Have To Make'

Principals at eight Jefferson County high schools say they want to give their teachers the option to let students use cell phones in class and the school board expects to approve their requests in early September.

The Jefferson County Board of Education held a work session Monday to discuss how the schools will implement their policies. The district bans all cell phone use in schools, but principals are now allowed to request waivers after JCPS updated its code of conduct, which sets the behavioral expectations for the district. The individual school policies vary, but all principals say laying out clear expectations for appropriate usage is a must.  Eight high schools are requesting waivers. Those schools include Ballard, Southern, Valley, Fairdale, Iroquois, Seneca, DuPont Manual and Waggener. Dewey Hensley, chief academic officer for JCPS, gave a brief presentation of “Bring Your Own Device” policies and he pointed to districts like Los Angeles and Atlanta Public Schools that don't allow cell phones and others like Chicago and Fairfax, Virginia which do. Hensley added Fayette County Schools allows cell phones inside the classroom with teacher’s permission and Oldham County Schools requires parent permission before using cell phones for school related work. All eight JCPS policy proposals included input from stakeholders like students, teachers, and School-Based Decision Making Councils, Hensley said. Among the reasons to allow cell phones were less student-teacher conflict, increased student engagement and refining students’ navigation skills. Principals like Seneca High School's Michelle Dillard said students can access applications that help them prepare for the ACT college readiness test or that are inline with the state's new education standards known as the Common Core. Other principals said it's just as important that students learn how to use technology outside the classroom. “My issue is not how they do it when we’re modeling it for them in the classroom. It’s getting them to use them for instructional purposes outside of school,” said Katie Zeitz, principal at Waggener High School. “They can look at their ILP [individual learning plan] on a cell phone. They can manage all those different types of things on a cell phone," she said. Southern High School principal Bryce Hibbard says his school--which has been deemed persistently low-achieving by the state--struggles with digital learning and allowing cell phone use will help with the school’s improvement plan. Schools must create clear expectations. The principals all agreed that expectations must be made apparent to students and staff early on and that cell phones must be used as a learning tool. Iroquois High School principal Chris Perkins said "this has to be done well." He added that technology has become an important part of society and it goes hand in hand with being college and career ready. “This is not to replace instruction, it’s to enhance instruction,” Perkins said. Board members questioned equal access for all students. Although the individual school policies vary, all must show that cell phones will be used for organizational or research purposes to enhance student learning. This could include everything from using the cell phone as a calculator to accessing applications for homework. Schools must prove to the board that no student will be left behind or punished for not having access to technology. Most students have access to cell phones with data plans, surveys in some schools showed. In Fairdale and Waggener, around three-quarters of students have access to cell phones. Further, Perkins said students learn in different ways and not allowing cell phones is—in a way—also denying certain students access to quality education. “I think it’s important that we are implementing more technology inside the classroom as well as outside the classroom," he said. Will allowing cell phones cut suspensions? Board member Linda Duncan questioned the principals on whether implementing a cell phone policy would cut suspensions and if the policy would realistically stop kids from misusing cell phones. Seneca's Dillard said cell phones are the second-leading cause of suspensions in her school, behind behavioral issues enforced by the district's zero-tolerance policy.  “Students they refuse to give them [phones] up and I understand that because parents will say don’t give up your cell phone no matter what. Because they paid for it, they paid for the plan, and as a parent I truly understand that,” she said. What teachers think of using cell phones in class. Principals assured the school board that, if granted waivers, teachers would not be forced to use cell phones as part of their curriculum, but rather would have the choice. Several principals testified that in informal surveys they conducted, teachers overwhelmingly supported the option. At Ballard High School there were only three teachers who didn’t have an opinion on using cell phones in class out of 100 surveyed. At Fairdale High School only six out of 69 preferred the cell phone ban. The school board supports cell phones, but questions the infrastructure. Board member Chris Brady says he supports allowing cell phones in class, but asked whether the district's bandwidth--which was recently expanded--is capable of handling students accessing the wireless internet. Officials said this is something they must confirm. Further, Brady cautions allowing any school to apply for a waiver and said perhaps “we need to have lessons learned," and that these eight school should be considered a pilot project. At the same time, board member Debbie Wesslund said doesn't want a school to wait a whole year before the can apply for the waiver. Wesslund said this is “a step that we have to make to make sure learning is accessible and we have the achievement we need to have.” Board member David Jones Jr. said he applauds the principals’ courage to be among the early implementers in JCPS, but he also said there needs to be good communication so mistakes can be found early. Board member Linda Duncan questioned the liability factors and asked the district’s general counsel, Rosemary Miller, whether JCPS can afford this. Miller couldn’t say allowing cell phones would be liability free but did say it wouldn’t increase liability exponentially. Board member Carol Haddad said, “I worry that some kids will get it and some won’t. That happens with everything we do. I remember when computers first came in and that was quite a fight. Some teachers wanted to use them some didn’t want to use them in the classroom, they just wanted to use the labs." Principals will officially request waivers during the first school board meeting in September.