WESLEY CHAPEL — Jennifer Gould ended her class announcements and told her students to take out their cell phones.
"I need at least three people who can get a signal in here," Gould said to her advanced placement literature class. "We're going to be studying the works of D.H. Lawrence, and I want you to find some things about him that you don't already know."
Nearly everyone whipped out a phone and began tapping away. Within moments, the teens were sharing their Internet discoveries.
"He lived during World War I."
"He had relationships with men and women."
"He lived the second half of his life in exile, considered a pornographer who had wasted his talents."
With each detail, Gould pulled her students deeper into a discussion about the author. When the talk had run its course, the students set their phones down and turned their attention to another author.
In a world where most high schools have adopted a "we see them, we take them" policy on cell phones, Pasco County's Wiregrass Ranch High School swims upstream.
It lets kids text and call and go online whenever they're not in class. That alone puts Wiregrass Ranch among a small group of Tampa area high schools with relaxed cell phone policies. Others are Largo and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County and River Ridge and Gulf in Pasco County.
But Wiregrass Ranch goes a step further.
It encourages teachers to allow students to use their phones in classes for educational purposes. Teens routinely use their phones to shoot pictures for projects, calculate math problems, check their teachers' blogs and even take lecture notes.
"That doesn't mean we don't have students who misuse the privilege," said principal Ray Bonti, who this summer distributed some recommended classroom uses for cell phones to teachers. "There are boundaries just like at every other high school. Those boundaries are just defined a little differently at Wiregrass Ranch High School."
If anyone's complaining, Bonti hasn't heard it. Parents, staffers and students alike have praised the school's many efforts to be technologically savvy, including giving students permission to use their personal laptops on campus, too, he said.
The school also has plenty of firewalls and filters in place.
Kids know they have something most other schools don't offer. And they love it.
"I think it's a good policy, because we're all pretty much adults here," senior Katie Everett said. "People are going to text no matter what. So I think it's good that the principal and staff here are being open and letting us use it for educational purposes."
Senior Eric LaGattuta, who attended Freedom High in Hillsborough before moving to Wiregrass Ranch, called his new school "ahead of the game."
"They're just following the rest of the world. It's going digital," he said, checking his phone for messages repeatedly during a short interview. "Once you're 16 or 17, there's things you need to know throughout the day. It was so inconvenient when I had to hide it all the time."
Many teachers agreed.
"They all have them anyway, and they're all dying to use them in class," said Spanish teacher Ariana Leonard, who admitted that she stores her life in her cell phone and uses it for a variety of functions. "If they're texting when they're supposed to be listening, I might tell them to put it away. But you might teach them a way to use it that might be applicable to their learning."
Students in her English for language learners class often use their phones to take pictures of items she says in English, to demonstrate they understood her.
Chemistry teacher Peter Skoglund said he barely pays attention to texting teens anymore. He expects students having cell phones out in his class to be using them for learning. If not, that's their problem.
Most don't abuse the right, he said, knowing they have plenty of time at lunch and in passing periods to take care of personal issues.
Gould shared that perspective. Last year, she said, trying to get kids to put away cell phones in class was a daily battle.
"Now, no," she said. "It doesn't infringe upon the education anymore."
The new rules have opened up a new world, she said. Teachers no longer have to wait for a school computer lab to get a quick research project done. The few students who don't have phones share in small groups, or use alternative school equipment.
One girl raised her hand in Gould's class during the D.H. Lawrence discussion and said, "As the only person in here without a phone, I have a question." It quickly got answered.
Allowing students to use their cell phones in class means things get done immediately, which translates into more efficient use of learning time, Gould said: "It puts the education in their hands."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.