Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Pasco schools easing restrictions on wireless devices

LAND O'LAKES — Lunchtime means phone time at Rushe Middle School.

Sixth-grader Tianna Caban plugs into Adam Lambert tunes while eating. Jace Glass wirelessly connects with sixth-grade classmates Matthew Bodden and Ricky Castillo for a round of Minecraft. Sixth-grader Colton Billett peruses weather sites to see how cold it is in other cities.

In December, only the kids with special permission could freely use their devices during downtime at the school. The new semester brought more relaxed rules to Rushe, as principal David Salerno wanted his students to get used to the way things happen in high school.

"I like that we get more freedom," said seventh-grader Armeeta Dehi, noting that the rule mostly legitimizes things that she and others did anyway and hoped to get away with.

Before long, all Pasco County public school students — from kindergarten through senior year — could have the same access.

The School Board is considering a complete reversal of policy, giving children permission to use their personal wireless devices during lunch, after-school activities and other breaks so long as they aren't disruptive. Currently, policy says students can carry devices, but they're expected to be turned off without explicit approval from a school official.

Students can use their devices for educational reasons in classes at teachers' direction.

The proposal aims to acknowledge the reality that many students carry powerful computers in their bags and pockets, and they like to use them. So long as they're listening and learning in class, superintendent Kurt Browning said to the School Board, "who cares?" about what they listen to outside class.

"Technology has disrupted the traditional model of education. We are adjusting to that," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said. "We have to catch up to the kids, because it's not like they aren't using it."

Of course, certain guidelines would have to be in place, relating to such matters as bullying, sexting and cheating. Larson stressed that a key component of the district's effort will include lessons on "digital citizenship," to ensure students act responsibly.

Worries over students taking and posting photographs with their phones derailed a similar policy recommendation in 2011.

This time, board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he's not so disturbed with language that would prohibit the audio and video recording of students without their consent. He's now convinced students taking photos of others would not imply district privacy violations.

"It's a personal matter of parents and students," he said.

The schools will take seriously any violation that spins off a student's actions with a wireless device, Alfonso added. "We'll let other parts of district policy help police appropriate use."

Rushe students had no problem with the photo ban.

"Some people aren't allowed to be in photos," seventh-grader Anna Figueroa said matter-of-factly.

They don't want to lose the privilege of free-time music, gaming and texting that would come from violating the rule.

"They trust us," said sixth-grader Macy Taylor, who said she generally plays games on her phone. "We're responsible students."

That's what School Board members are counting on.

"It's a different world that we live in," board member Cynthia Armstrong said. "Technology is something that students need to learn to use appropriately if they're going to be lifelong learners. We need to concentrate on teaching them to use their devices appropriately rather than ban them outright."

At the same time, board chairwoman Alison Crumbley said the district might consider an approach that considers each school level differently. What works in a high school, she suggested, might not be appropriate in an elementary school.

Most county high schools allow students to use their devices when not in class, and often teachers use them in the classroom, too. Many middle schools do the same.

Elementary schools, however, have varied rules.

At Cotee River Elementary, for example, students can use their devices before and after school, but not at lunch. In the older grades, students can use them for reading.

Sunray Elementary students, by contrast, are told to keep their phones and tablets off during the day. The school provides technology if it's needed for instruction.

At Calusa Elementary, meanwhile, kids are welcome to play Candy Crush at lunch, and to use their devices during class time if the teachers say it's okay. Principal Kara Merlin acknowledged grappling with the rules, but said the goal is to accept technology as it is — "the way of our world."

Teachers and administrators understand students will take missteps, Merlin said. But those are opportunities to instruct proper device use, she suggested, just as the school teaches kids how to use other tools.

"Kindergarten students draw on tables with crayons," she said. "We don't tell them not to use crayons any more. We teach them how to use crayons."

The new policy is scheduled to come to the board for the first of two readings on Feb. 4.

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