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Pasco school e-device rule overhaul moving forward

Published:   |   Updated: February 12, 2014 at 10:58 AM

WESLEY CHAPEL — Cultural differences are to be expected when anyone makes a cross-country move from Los Angeles to Wesley Chapel, but Chase Corley admits he wasn’t prepared for what he encountered when he enrolled at Wiregrass Ranch High School.

Not only did the Wiregrass teachers allow the 17-year-old senior to pull out his cellphone during class, they practically insisted on it.

“It’s weird,” he said. “It’s different.”

His high school in California had a no-cellphones policy. Wiregrass Ranch takes a more lenient approach, incorporating cellphones and other wireless devices into routine class work and largely ignoring students who peer at the devices when they switch classes or head to lunch.

That could soon become the routine at other schools in Pasco County, as well, as the school district policy catches up with what essentially has been the status quo at Wiregrass.

Under the current policy, students are supposed to keep the devices turned off unless told by a teacher or administrator to power them on.

The revised policy, tentatively approved by the school board Feb. 5 and set for a final vote April 1, is less restrictive. It will allow students to use their devices before or after school, during lunch, between classes, during after-school activities, at school-related functions and on the school bus, “provided such uses do not create a distraction, disruption or otherwise interfere with the educational environment.”

When class is in session, students can use them only under the direction of a teacher or administrator.

Some wireless activities are still verboten. The policy prohibits such things as sexting, texting while driving and photographing or recording others without their permission. Devices with built-in cameras also are prohibited from being used in locker rooms, shower rooms and restrooms.

The new policy might mean a dramatic change for some schools. At Wiregrass Ranch High, it mostly will be business as usual. The school, which opened in 2006, has been an innovator in encouraging students to use their cellphones and other wireless devices in the classroom, with teachers designing lessons that hinge on the electronics and educating students about finding credible sources when they conduct research.

No one minds, either, if a student is hunched over a cellphone or iPad during lunch, messaging friends or playing a game.

Biology teacher Lesley Kirkley said she often makes use of the camera function in the devices, taking her students outside to photograph live organisms on the campus. They return to class and use those photographs to design a digital version of the food chain.

“I want to give them the opportunity to use the resources and see it as a tool and not just something they’re using to text message friends,” Kirkley said.

Teachers also make use of a Web-based program called Socrative that allows them to ask students questions or give them a quiz through their wireless devices. The question appears on the student’s cellphone or iPad, and the student punches in a response.

Rachel Miller, a government teacher, said that’s a great resource because the program tells her instantly who answered correctly and who did not. If a large percentage of the students miss the same question, she knows she needs to revisit that material.

During a class change Tuesday morning, as Wiregrass students emerged from their classrooms, many quickly became engrossed in cellphone conversations or otherwise engaged with the tiny screens.

Principal Robyn White watched the procession and chastised just one rule-breaker, a boy wearing a hat in violation of the dress code.

The cellphones warranted a shrug.

“It’s part of their everyday lives,” White said.

In some classes, students are issued school-owned iPads, which 14-year-old freshman Monika Caffier said are handy for organizing work and keeping track of what’s required.

During lunch, she can get ahead on homework or surf the Internet for fun.

“I think it’s really beneficial,” she said. “It makes you want to learn more and it’s easier to take notes if you have sloppy handwriting.”

Her handwriting, for the record, is not sloppy.

Kayla Osborn, another 14-year-old freshman, said some teachers send text messages to remind students about upcoming quizzes or work that’s due. Assignments also are available online, so a student who misses school because of illness can check what’s expected without having to wait until the next day.

“I only have one teacher who doesn’t let us use electronics,” Osborn said. “In the other classes, they encourage us to use them.”

None of this means Wiregrass students are perfect in their wireless decorum. Teachers catch them using their phones when they were told, repeatedly, to put them away, and ultimately each teacher has final say as to whether phones or other devices are used in class.

That means occasionally a little prodding is in order.

“It’s a constant reminder, but that doesn’t prohibit me from doing my job,” history teacher Connie Hines said.

In a sense, the cellphone is just an old problem manifesting itself in new technology. Hines said when she began teaching, “we just had to deal with note passing.”

Still, with technology so dominant in their lives, Hines said students could use a reminder of the importance of face-to-face communication. Often she sees them strolling down the hallway, texting away, instead of engaging in conversations with each other.

“I see kids isolate themselves with their phones and that’s an issue,” Hines said.

Biology teacher Branden Anglin said if he sees a lot of students surreptitiously sneaking looks at their cellphones when they are supposed to pay attention to him, he gives himself part of the blame, figuring he hasn’t made the lesson engaging enough.

Incorporating technology into the lesson helps that engagement, but it isn’t the only way to grab students’ attention.

Anglin’s class extracted DNA from fruit, and the curious students became captivated with the hands-on activity. For a moment, at least, DNA revealed before their eyes in the classroom trumped anything the students might view on those brightly lit screens.