On Your Side Investigation: Cellphones in schools

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - What used to be banned in the classroom has become an increasingly prevalent part of the learning environment in Alabama schools. Cellphone policies have changed dramatically in Alabama schools in the last few years and vary from school system to school system.

WBRC examined the technology policies for six school systems in our area and found all six now allow students to bring cellphones to school. Specific rules vary, but all policies we examined allow cell phone use in the classroom with teacher permission. The school system polices we studied were for Birmingham, Homewood, Hoover, Jefferson County, Shelby County and Tuscaloosa counties.

Dr. Craig Pouncey, Superintendent of Jefferson County Schools, said 80 percent of students have either a cell phone or tablet, so three years ago, the district began providing teachers with training on how to incorporate students' personal devices into their classroom instruction.

"It creates relevancy for students," explained Pouncey. "I think most teachers are utilizing it to enhance what's going on in the classroom."

After retiring in 2011 with 35 years experience teaching, Mike Means said cell phones had become a distraction from student's learning. He most recently taught business and marketing at a Jefferson County High School and said he chose to not allow phones for academic purposes in his classroom.

"The professional can't watch 30 children all the time," Means said. "You've got to turn to the board, you've got paperwork, you've got attendance. It's just really hard for school systems to police," he said.

Pouncey said part of teacher training includes protocols for how to make sure students are not abusing phone privileges in the classroom. In Jefferson County schools, students are expected to keep their phones face down on their desks until they receive specific instructions from their teachers. Pouncey said through the professional development and over time, teachers have grown more comfortable incorporating the use of cellphones in class.

"I think administrators and teachers were fearful of the distractions of technology that at the time, they weren't very comfortable with, but I think as it has evolved over the last several years and people have become so dependent upon the cellphone as a resource, then I think we've gotten comfortable with its presence in the classrooms," Pouncey said.

What about children who don't have a cellphone? As more school systems tailor instruction to cellphones and iPads, will kids without these devices be left behind? Pouncey said in Jefferson County Schools, the children who don't bring a cellphone to school have access to Chromebooks, small laptops available for students to check out.

The bottom line for Means: parents need to guide their kids on how to be responsible while using a cellphone.

"Know what's on that phone and make sure they know, even though that's the policy, it's not always appropriate to do things with the phone that are taking away from the academic day," Means said.

"They're there to study. It's social, they're teenagers, but in the end, you're there to go to school," he said.

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