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Palo Alto schools implement new cellphone policy

Update allows teachers to make the call on in-class use

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The Palo Alto Unified School District's new cellphone policy, adopted in early June, requires students to turn off their cellphones in class unless teachers allow them for instructional purposes.

The policy's language provides a clearer expectation compared to the last version, which permitted students to use their devices as long as they were not disruptive or engaging in unethical activities such as cheating.

As with the previous policy, students who misuse their cellphones face possible confiscation and "may be subject to further discipline" under board policy and administrative regulation, including counseling and even expulsion.

Board of Education member Heidi Emberling said that the new policy is rooted in updates from the California School Boards Association in 2012.

"Changes weren't in response to any recent events," she said. "The policy was in effect but under review."

Mixing teenagers, cellphones and schoolwork has presented its challenges, though. Earlier this month, Palo Alto High School invalidated the results of 112 final exams in Algebra 2 after determining that students cheated, exchanging text messages and photos of answers.

The policy update spells out the greater control teachers have in deciding whether cellphones can play an instructional role. Practices are similar at neighboring Menlo-Atherton High School, where students must put away their phones except when teachers designate times for the devices to be used, according to Administrative Vice Principal Karl Losekoot. But rather than phone confiscation, penalties include calls home, time in the office and community service.

Teachers at Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School are divided on whether or not phones belong in an academic setting. Some say the devices are valuable learning tools while others view them as a distraction.

Ronen Habib, who teaches Positive Psychology at Gunn, welcomes mobile devices in his classes. He checks students' understanding of the material through the use of apps, which provide instant feedback to Habib and the students themselves. That way Habib can identify quickly which students need help and which students can help others.

Habib also enlists the assistance of apps before inviting discussion about controversial topics. Students use their phones to record responses, which appear in a data table that helps to generate discussion. Afterward, students update their responses, and the class can evaluate how the discussion influenced opinions.

"Using an app is not a high-order thinking skill, but it's a good tool that deepens your relationship with the material," Habib said.

Gunn teacher Anne Dumontier allows her French language students to use mobile devices to access media and text files that provide answers and explanations via QR codes. Dumontier prepares the QR codes, which her students access through an app. Students also use their phones to practice vocabulary with the online learning tool Quizlet and to produce audio assignments.

Paly students in Suzanne Antink's math classes use their phones to check for understanding via questions posted on a website. Antink finds that integrating mobile devices helps students research answers to questions in addition to generating fresh ones.

Antink said students are generally compliant when the time comes to turn off their cellphones, but if there is an issue, teachers will collect the student's phone and return it at the end of class.

"If it's a chronic problem ... we work with the parent and perhaps the school psychologist to minimize chronic use," Antink stated in an email.

When it comes to the teens themselves, just because rules exist does not ensure they will be followed.

"I use it every single day in, like, every single class," Ian Detreville, a student at Gunn, said while eating lunch with his friends on campus last month. "Texting, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr. I've been told to put it away, but it hasn't ever been taken away."

Alejandra Castillo, a student at Paly, shares similar feelings: "If I use my phone in the classroom, it's just to text my friends and go on Instagram. Maybe like every 30 minutes. Teachers don't really care anymore."

But some teachers care deeply. Gunn English teacher Justin Brown, for instance, fears that social networking curbs social interaction. His cellphone policy is one of zero tolerance.

"There was one particular day that I had at least 15 students in my room waiting for class to begin, all ignoring one another ... busying themselves on their phones, where the light bulb went off for me," Brown stated in an email. "Allowing phones in the room, even before class, was hurting my ability to create a friendly, sociable community."

Brown said forbidding cellphones in his classroom is increasingly difficult because other teachers don't follow similar practices. As a result, students often meet his rules with surprise and indignation.

"I am forced to confiscate many phones over the course of the semester," Brown said. "I've found, however, that the extra effort is worth it. Students are making friends more frequently in my classes ... since I began enforcing the rule."

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Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2014 at 9:52 am

This is probably a good idea.

But what does "confiscate" mean? Just for the duration of the class period?

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 26, 2014 at 10:04 am

I applaud this discussion, but not sure how it can be seen to be implemented.

One of the teachers at Back to School Night last year told us his policy was to get the students to use their phones to take photos of the homework written on the white board and various other instructions. Other teachers use lots of technology in the classroom. Our students will be using phones for things we can't even imagine as yet when they are adults and although there are lots of negatives, we can't stop them or hold them back from the future. I agree that face to face conversation before the start of class makes for better relationships in the classroom, but it all depends on how it is handled.

On a pure practical note, how many students can have an "old" phone from home switched off to prove that their phone is off, when their real phone is in a pocket ready to be used at a moment's notice?

I applaud the policy, I just doubt its effectiveness and compliancy from staff as well as students.

Like this comment
Posted by former parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2014 at 10:53 am

Finally PAUSD has made a student-friendly policy in this regard. Too late for my kids.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim H
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 26, 2014 at 11:08 am

Students in middle school (at least at Jordan) need to leave their phones in their lockers. Why can't they be left in the backpacks for high school ?

Why do students look for answers for questions on their phone during class when the teacher is right there? How lazy are the teachers getting??

Like this comment
Posted by BrionesParent
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jun 26, 2014 at 11:08 am

I cannot imagine how teachers can teach when each student has a smartphone. It's already difficult to get enough good teachers, and now each and every teacher has to also have incredible charisma, in order to get students to be interested in the classroom material more than in what their friends are sharing elsewhere. Plus the phones give such an incredible appeal to cheat!
I'd rather have no personal devices permitted in classroom, and classrooms to have devices with restricted apps used for educational purposes only.

1 person likes this
Posted by Marianne
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 26, 2014 at 11:35 am

I have plenty of adult employees who can't get off the phones, so imagine children with lesser self-control. All phones (or major distractions) should be banned from the learning process, and not just for the sake of learning but for the sake of socializing or learning to be social.

Like this comment
Posted by Theresa
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jun 26, 2014 at 12:13 pm

I've been a coach at both of Palo Alto's high schools, and cell phones became more and more of a problem over my 12 years in the gym. We would set a policy of zero tolerance, and have penalties if the policy was disobeyed. That worked quite well, though some of the athletes would try to extend water breaks so they could deal with their texts and social media sites.

My daughter is now a high school teacher in another district. Her school doesn't yet have a mobile device policy, but it sounds like she has rules in place to keep her students from using them in class without her explicit permission. I think it's a good idea to have a schoolwide policy, just to keep everyone on the same page, but it sounds like different teachers have different ways of using mobile devices. I would hate to see that turn into a "haves" and "have nots" issue, though, as not every kid has a smartphone.

Like this comment
Posted by TheyDoNotBelongInSchool
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jun 26, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Cell phones have no business in the hands of students while they are at school. And by that I mean while they are on school property, much less in the class room. They are too much of a distraction both to the user and to others. They should be out of site (locker, backpack, pocket, bag, etc) from the moment they arrive at school until they leave school. If seen with one out, the phone should be confiscated, delivered to the office, and in order to retrieve it the student must go to the office after school and wait until the parent or guardian is contacted (via the phone in question so it gets answered). If a student needs to be contacted while school is in session then the school office should be contacted to get the student. "Instant communication" with a student while at school is no excuse at all. Period.

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 26, 2014 at 3:48 pm

Students believe they can capably multi-task but THEY CANNOT. There was a public tv special several years ago featuring professors who research this, especially a Stanford prof, as I recall, as well as several classroom settings shown at Stanford and MIT. These high self-esteem students interviewed for the program rather arrogantly asserted they were fully capable of multi-tasking with electronic devices, using facebook during MIT lectures and so on, but research demonstrated they could not retain info and be effective. Profs were divided on whether they outlaw devices, despise them, permit them.
Someone one the show remarked how these students' parents were spending a lot of money to send them to these universities so they could...spend their time texting and facebooking during lectures by eminent professors! The arrogance of some of the students was incredible - oh, I can handle it.
Not true.
I oppose the use of cellphones in classrooms.
I KNOW hardware companies are determined to sell ever more electronic devices as "necessities" in the classroom, from kindergarten up to secondary level (at taxpayer expense), and students at elite universities feel the need to keep up with the Joneses in terms of what devices they flash around, but these things have little to do with high quality education/learning.
There are hand-held clicker devices that have been used by students in limited classroom settings to respond to a teacher or prof (yes, I am getting the point of this material), but I don't believe this should be the dominant mode of in-classroom instruction! Staring down at tiny screens, getting distracted, getting off an occasional text -- these things are not productive nor suitable for classrooms, especially with young people.
Respect your teacher or professor - do not waste your time w/fb and Twitter during classtime.

Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 26, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

Posted by Jim H, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
4 hours ago
Students in middle school (at least at Jordan) need to leave their phones in their lockers. Why can't they be left in the backpacks for high school ?

Why do students look for answers for questions on their phone during class when the teacher is right there? How lazy are the teachers getting??
Shouldn't that be, how lazy the STUDENTS are getting?

I'm just surprised that this new policy wasn't already in effect. It is tremendously disrespectful to the teacher and fellow classmates to be texting, et cetera, in class.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 26, 2014 at 5:26 pm

@ Nora Charles
No it's how can teachers be so lazy to allow cell phone use to answer questions that students have. The teacher should be the ones answering the questions. They should not tolerate allowing the student to go online to get the answers, especially when they complain about being underpaid and underappreciated.

How can a self-respecting teacher believe that it's acceptable to just have them check for answers on their phone? They are in the class to teach the students, not facilitate their use of the internet.

Like this comment
Posted by Goode Lucke
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 26, 2014 at 5:43 pm

Best of luck enforcing this, particularly with some of the very sneaky kids attending Gunn and Paly now. Worse, their parents haven't a clue about how devious their kids are.

Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 26, 2014 at 7:13 pm

Is this the same Justin Brown who shamelessly refused to use InClass and Schoology?

Like this comment
Posted by Bill M
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Over the years I taught at several universities, including 14 years at SJSU. Cell phones have NO PLACE in any classroom. I required my students to keep cell phones and others in their backpack. NO EXCEPTIONS. It is very hard to keep students attention with no distractions. Learning is the #1 priority in any classroom

Like this comment
Posted by Glad - Finally
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 27, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Past PALY principal Phil Winston used to unabashedly text in the middle of small group meetings. Seems like getting rid of his bad example will help all our kids

Like this comment
Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on Jun 27, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Nora Charles is a registered user.

Jim H.,

That was not my understanding from the article. It noted that they are used as an additional learning tool. Not true?

My dear, late mother taught Junior High School. She worked damn hard, at school, on evenings, and weekends, so it is very hard to hear yet another criticism of these hard toiling people who shoulder such great responsibility. They deserve every cent they earn, and then some.

Like this comment
Posted by NoSoccerMom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 28, 2014 at 12:18 pm

The article states that teachers can override the ban in their own classroom. So all this rule does is allow teachers to reinforce a rule if they choose. Texting isn't rampant at Paly according to my children. But mine are responsible and care about their GPAs. The school shouldn't have to be responsible for smartphone addictions.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 28, 2014 at 2:03 pm

This appears to be a good move in a needed direction, particularly after the recent testing scandal.
However, it's disappointing that Emberling chose to claim that "changes weren't in response to any recent events". She recognized that the California School Boards Association had provided guidance for updates in 2012, but our board and administration did not take action until a week or so right after the scandal was uncovered. I accept that the changes may have been in que for some time before now, but the timing of this "coincidence" stretches credibility beyond the breaking point. This seems to be another example of pride and defensiveness by our board interfering with their willingness to make honest acknowledgements about ways in which our district needs to improve and then fixing things and moving on.
In this case, they did the right thing. It's probably good they acted before they were criticized for lacking such a policy. Otherwise, they might have dug in their heals and chosen to deny the problem rather than respond constructively to shortcomings. If fear of criticism drives them to move more quickly to respond to problems in the future, then that achieves a positive result, but we don't need their gratuitous denials about what drove them to action.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 28, 2014 at 2:10 pm

> it's disappointing that Emberling chose to claim that
> "changes weren't in response to any recent events".

Hss the Board actually addressed the cheating issue in any offical way, or just ignored it?

Like this comment
Posted by Dev
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2014 at 11:41 am

For all teachers that do NOT allow cell phones to be used in their classes, they should include this info on their class syllabus and post it on their class door.

The consequence for using the phone in the classroom should be that the phone is taken away (for the DAY) and will only be returned to a parent. If a parent is not able to come in to retrieve the phone, they should contact the teacher directly (phone or email). This should only be able to be done only once, as some parents will just bail their kid out.

Either parents are going to support the rules and teachers, or they will need to make time to retrieve the device and see how being inconvenienced feels.

I'm sure it will make many kids think twice before pulling out their phones in a class that phones are not permitted.

Like this comment
Posted by Experienced Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 11, 2014 at 11:54 am

Oh, please, Dev. They need to just take it away for the class period. Your idea will not work in Palo Alto. Too many argumentative parents with attorneys for your idea to work in PAUSD.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 11, 2014 at 10:24 pm

We need a teacher app that can turn off all phones in the class room once class starts and turn them back on when the student leaves the room ((like the app that doesn't allow text messages when the car is running). Hey that might work nicely in the movie theaters too.

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