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Schools try locking up cell phones to help class engagement

University City High junior Kenwyn Jones locks his cell phone at the beginning of AP language class on Sept. 19.

Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

Educators and researchers say there’s an inverse relationship between students’ grades and cellphones in the classroom. The easier it is for students to access their phones during class, the lower their grades tend to be. It’s only logical that any distractions introduced into a learning environment yield less learning. During exams, cellphones are an invitation to cheat.

School administrators absolutely should take a hard line on any cellphone use during class time and empower teachers to discipline students who violate a strict no-access code. Class time must be for learning, not playing video games, texting, posting on social media or watching lurid videos.

That said, compassionate solutions are available that stop short of confiscating phones and citing students for repeated infractions. As the Post-Dispatch’s Blythe Bernhard reported, a Hazelwood high school teacher has devised a way to help students break the cellphone habit while protecting schools and teachers from many of the aggravations and potential liabilities associated with confiscating phones.

Some St. Louis-area schools have been reluctant to empower teachers to seize contraband cellphones for fear of liability claims when phones are broken or lost. Some students, such as those from poor families living in violent neighborhoods, say they need to be within easy contact with parents in case emergencies arise.

But teachers say unfettered access during class time produces nothing but distractions. Rules that allow phones to be stored inside a purse or backpack tend to be useless. A student inevitably pulls out a phone for a sneak peak when the teacher isn’t looking. Surrounding students tend to direct their attention away from the teacher and toward the student with the phone. Other students will stop what they’re doing and gather around the one with the phone, or they’ll pull out their own phones to visit the same site. Teachers must spend valuable time trying to get students back under control.

Hazelwood high school art teacher Bill Henricks developed a cellphone locker system, which allows students to lock up their phones in clear plastic boxes that can only be unlocked by a remote under the teacher’s control. Students he talked to described their phones as having almost irresistible, addictive qualities. When a phone buzzes or vibrates, they feel they have to look if it’s in their possession. When they know it’s out of their control and they cannot access it, the temptation dissipates and focus returns to the lesson at hand.

University City High School, which ranks among the lowest in the region for academic proficiency, is the first to put Henricks’ invention to the test in classrooms teaching core subjects. Administrators are watching to see if classroom performance ticks upward as a result. If it yields the positive results we think it will, phone lockers should be expanded beyond core-subject classrooms so all teachers, regardless of subject, can have their students’ undivided attention.