Some districts letting students bring smartphones, tablets, devices to class

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For all the years educators have spent trying to curb the use of cell phones and other devices in school, these days they are finding meaningful ways for them to coexist with students in the classroom.

Starting this month, Bethel Park High School will permit districtwide student use of laptop computers, cell phones, tablets and other electronics in the classroom. After a weeks-long pilot program and teacher training, Peters Township School District will roll out a policy for use this month at the high school, and Mt. Lebanon School District is celebrating a year with a similar initiative.

Under the policies, students are permitted -- but not required -- to bring their devices to school for use during instructional time. For some schools, the option stemmed from budget cuts and too few computers to go around. But for most, immediacy is the appeal: Why round up a class for a trip to the computer lab when the technology is right there? The option also creates an environment that complements how students learn best.

"That's how kids are learning," said Janet O'Rourke, director of secondary education in Bethel Park. "If we close that off between 7:20 in the morning and 3:20 in the afternoon, we're missing a major portion of the way kids learn."

It's also practical, she said. If a student has a graphing calculator application on his iPhone, for example, he would be permitted to use that application in class rather than purchase the calculator separately.

School districts locally and nationwide have enacted similar Bring Your Own initiatives. It's been a success in Mt. Lebanon, said technology director Chris Stengel, who has collected feedback from teachers and students over the past year.

Because not every student has a computer, iPhone or tablet, Mr. Stengel said Mt. Lebanon's program is not meant to be a one-to-one initiative. For example, if a classroom exercise could benefit from smart technology and there are five students with iPhones, the teacher could organize five groups to do the project, with one iPhone to a group, he explained.

Bethel Park parent Tom Majernik said he'll allow his daughter, a junior, to bring a device to class, but he's concerned about students texting or playing on devices during instruction time. "I think there's more of an opportunity for distraction," he said.

Bethel Park will spend the next few weeks briefing parents and students on the new initiative, which they expect to be used largely at the high school. Teachers will supervise students, requiring them to place their devices in the corner of their desks during test time, for example.

"We understand there are going to be negative pieces to this," she said.

But administrators believe the positives will supersede potential problems.

Peters Township began its Bring Your Own Device pilot program this fall, collecting data from select teachers about what they're observing in the classroom and what disciplinary problems they've encountered so far, said assistant principal Emily Sanders.

Fourteen teachers permitted use of devices -- Kindle Fires, iPods and smartphones are most popular -- every Wednesday for the first nine weeks of school. The policy is scheduled to extend building-wide starting today.

Some policies, like Bethel Park's, require students to disengage from their device's cellular connection and sign onto the school's network, which would block access to certain sites.

Mr. Stengel said there's no legal way to enforce that rule. But "you're certainly not going to see that behavior in a classroom that's well-managed," he said.

Ms. Sanders and Peters High School principal Lori Pavlik said their policy is one step closer to creating a campus-like feel at the school, where more than 90 percent of students have smartphones.

Administrators know there will be rule-breakers, but all share a confidence in their student body to take the policies seriously.

"You have asked us to be able to use these resources," Ms. O'Rourke said. "But these are the rules."

One example Ms. Sanders offered was when Peters students were permitted to use cell phones in study halls and in the hallways two years ago. With that small luxury, she said, teachers didn't see cell phone use during class time.

"We gave them that responsibility, and they rose to that expectation," she said.

education - neigh_south

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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