By Alexis Gravely
All of the nearly 50 students at the Renaissance School have their own mailbox in the front office. But as the teens walk into the Charlottesville private school every day, they’re not dropping papers into them—they’re dropping their cell phones.
The students can check their phones between classes and have them at lunch. But when it’s time for them to focus on academics, the devices are away and not a distraction. It’s become a part of the school’s culture, says Sara Johnson, head of school at Renaissance.
“We want them to have freedom, but in the classroom, the learning process is the priority,” Johnson says.
As cell phone ownership among teens and pre-teens increases, school officials have had to wrestle with how students use their phones during the day. According to Common Sense Media, over half of 11-year-olds own cell phones and over 80 percent of 14-year-olds do. Yet, research shows that cell phones can do more to hinder students than help them.
That was the conclusion that a group of sixth graders at Henley Middle School drew last winter. The students were tasked with reviewing Albemarle County Public Schools’ technology policy and making recommendations to Principal Beth Costa about how it could be changed or improved.
Originally, ACPS middle schoolers were only allowed to use their cell phones at lunch. Soon, more students were having them at more times of the day, and teachers noticed them becoming distractions during class.
“A lot of the kids were saying we need to limit our own use,” Costa says. “It was an overwhelming response to what they had learned through this project.”
By August, their recommendation became a reality when ACPS rolled out a new policy that banned all middle school students from carrying cell phones during the school day. Teachers and school staff are also adhering to the rules.
“We want schools to always be healthy, welcoming, and supportive for all students,” an email to families said. “That’s why, after considerable reflection, we have decided that effective Wednesday, August 21 (the first day of school), our students no longer will be permitted to carry personal cell phones with them during any part of the school day.”
Now, a little over two months into the school year, Costa says the new policy has largely been successful.
“We aren’t having any issues from our students or the community,” Costa says. “We’ve had fewer than five instances where a kid has had their phone out.”
Costa says parents’ support of the policy has helped create a smoother transition. Prior to the rule change, Costa contacted families to let them know they were considering it. She says she received over 275 responses, which overwhelmingly supported what the county is calling “Away for the Day.”
Lisa Medders, the parent of a seventh grader who attends Sutherland Middle School, says that although her son doesn’t have a cell phone, she appreciates the policy because of its consistency across all middle school grades and all Albemarle County middle schools.
“I was thrilled that the new policy was changing to ‘Away for the Day’ for all grades because I have heard several parents and teachers comment on the distraction that cell phones have caused in the classroom,” Medders says.
Phones are still allowed at both city and county public high schools. Charlottesville High School Principal Eric Irizarry says he doesn’t see phones as a school-wide issue and would prefer not to have a blanket, zero-tolerance policy.
“With students, it’s trying to teach them where problems arise with cell phone use,” Irizarry says. “We try to come at it from a constructive and a teachable moment perspective because the reality is, they’re not going away.”
At Buford Middle School, Principal Jesse Turner says students are allowed to have phones in the classroom but are only supposed to use them for instructional purposes. They are also able to use them during lunch and other “loosely-structured times.”
“I understand from the viewpoint of a parent, the need to want to contact your child immediately,” Turner says. However, he says he’s noticed that the phones can be a disruption, even if they stay in students’ pockets. He also says that when conflicts arise, cell phones are often involved.
“I personally would like to see us be able to go to a system where phones are not allowed at all,” Turner says. “Because it’s not policy, I try to communicate to children that I’m going to trust them.”
School leaders at Buford have established consequences for misuse. Turner adds that if schools are going to allow phones, they will continue to need assistance from parents and guardians to ensure students are adhering to the guidelines.
Alexis Gravely is a student teacher at an Albemarle County elementary school.