Archive for Thursday, March 30, 2006

Necessity or overkill?

As cell phones find their way into lower grades, teachers, parents and students debate the need

March 30, 2006

In any large gathering of people today, there's bound to be at least a few people - if not the majority - with cell phones.

Lansing schools are no exception.

"It seems every kid here has one," said Brooks Jenkins, Lansing Middle School assistant principal.

As cell phones become ubiquitous, they are increasingly found in schools and even in classrooms - in the latter case, they are usually found when they ring.

Even as more and more students bring cell phones to school, administrators in Lansing school district say so far, they are keeping problems to a minimum.

The increasing number of students with cell phones has surprised some teachers, some of whom questioned the reasons for students - especially young students - to have them.

Parents say it's a matter of convenience, and the students - well, they had plenty of reasons that they should be allowed to have phones. (Incidentally, no students interviewed for this story thought they should have to pay for them.)

WHY?

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In her 31 years as a teacher, Barb Alonzi said this was year was the first she'd seen cell phones in her fifth-grade classroom. Her first encounter was in the fall, when a student's phone rang in the desk.

Alonzi, who teaches at Lansing Intermediate School, said it was "unbelieveable."

"The whole class was kind of surprised," she said.

Earlier this month, she took another phone away from a student - then it rang on her desk, Alonzi said.

So far, Alonzi said the incidents had been rare enough that they hadn't been too disruptive, but "it just seems so unnecessary."

Felicia Yoakam, a fourth-grade teacher at LIS, is in her first year of teaching, but she was just as surprised to see her students toting cell phones. She said her class was "warned sternly" that the phones must stay in students' lockers or they would be taken away.

Since the warning, her students seem to have gotten the message, Yoakam said, but "the reason for having a cell phone is the real question."

Her students - six of whom said they had cell phones - gave various reasons for needing one.

Most of the reasons revolved around safety. One student said he walked to daycare after school, and his parents liked to be able to check on him. Other students suggested a phone would be useful if they got hurt, if they suspected someone was trying to abduct them or "in case you accidentally walk into the woods."

Another main reason the fourth-graders wanted phones was to coordinate pick-up schedules. One fourth-grader said he sometimes had to call his grandmother to remind her to pick him up.

At LMS, Jenkins said most students would claim they have phones so they could call for rides after school or activities.

"That seems to be the main issue in justification," he said.

Lansing school board clerk Doniaell Brandt said such was the reason for getting her eighth-grade daughter a cell phone for Christmas last year.

With her daughter attending sports practices and games that aren't always finished at the same time, Brandt said she'd rather have her daughter call when she's ready than wait in the car.

Brandt said her daughter having the phone was "not as bad as I thought it was going to be."

"It is pretty convenient," she said.

Andi Pawlowski, a City Council member and mother of a fourth-grader at Lansing Intermediate School, gave her daughter, Cassie, a phone after Christmas - "because all her friends have phones," she said.

Pawlowski admitted she'd caved in by buying her daughter a phone at age 9. She said she planned to wait until Cassie was in middle school and was involved in more activities.

However, she said the phone had proved to be a source of comfort for her. When Cassie forgets to say where she's going, Pawlowski just calls her phone instead of calling all the parents in the neighborhood.

Cassie, however, has a different view of the phone's purpose.

"You can decorate it, and it comes with all kinds of rings that sound cool," she said.

Pawlowski said her daughter seemed to confirm her suspicions that the phone was more of a toy and status symbol to children Cassie's age.

"I don't think it's any different than platform shoes or bell-bottom jeans," she said.

THEY'RE OUT THERE

Yoakam said she suspected that cell phones at LIS were more prevalent than most teachers realized.

"What we do see is probably a fraction" of what's there, she said.

The poll of her class showed that twice as many of her students had phones as she had thought. Pawlowski estimated one-third of fourth-graders had phones, based on the number of cell-phone owners her daughter was able to name.

Estimates went up at each school. Students at LMS guessed that anywhere from 65 percent to 95 percent of middle-schoolers had cell phones, and LHS students thought 98 percent to 99 percent of their classmates owned phones. While their methods are far from scientific, the numbers show that at least the perception is that cell phones are widespread in the schools.

One exception in Lansing is Lansing Elementary School, where principal Tim Newton said he had no problems and no students with cell phones. He discouraged parents from giving children in kindergarten through third grade a phone because "it's something they would probably lose."

"There's really not a need," he said, especially because kindergarteners and first-graders were only just learning their phone numbers and how to use a phone.

At least one third-grader said she had a cell phone and brought it to school. But she said she was the only third-grader she knew of who had one.

FOLLOWING THE RULES

District policy states that students may bring cell phones to school, but they should be turned off and stowed in the student lockers.

At Lansing Middle School, not all students are following that policy.

"It's a pretty big issue as far as the number we're seeing in the classroom," Jenkins said.

Jenkins, who has been in his position at LMS since 2003, said there was a boom in cell phones at the school in the spring 2005 semester. Teachers started bringing them to him when they caught the phones ringing or students playing games or messaging each other, he said.

Jenkins said he couldn't point a finger at what caused the sudden appearance of the phones, but it looks to him like they're here to stay.

"I think it's going to become a bigger and bigger issue," he said.

Mike Bogard, assistant principal at Lansing High School, agrees that cell phones are becoming a more common accessory for most of his students.

"They're just becoming a piece of everyday life," he said.

However, Bogard said he hadn't had too many issues with the phones, such as ringing in class.

"It happens, but I wouldn't say it's a problem," he said.

Even if the phones continue to proliferate on campus, Bogard said potential problems, such as classroom disruptions, cheating or inappropriately use, could all be avoided if students abide by district policy.

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