JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
When it comes to cellphones, what was once a novelty is now ubiquitous.
Last fall, for the first time, the number of wireless subscriber connections in the United States – nearly 323 million – exceeded its population of 315 million, the telecom trade group CTIA reported.
Much of the growth is from young people.
According to Pew polling data, more than 3 in 4 teenagers ages 12 to 17 now own a personal cellphone, up from 45 percent in late 2004.
The average age of a cellphone user also is skewing younger, as toddler-friendly learning apps enter the market and elementary-age children, for whom mobile technology is second nature, jump on the bandwagon.
A 2011 survey of 20,000 Massachusetts youths revealed that about 85 percent of high school and middle school students had their own cellphone, as did about a third of elementary students.
In Durango, administrators and teachers have witnessed a similar explosion in cellphone use among students but reported only isolated cases of misuse.
Durango School District 9-R permits individual schools to set their own policies on cellphones and other mobile gadgets, such as iPods and tablets. Generally, students are granted more leeway with age.
At Animas Valley, Park and Florida Mesa elementary schools, students are asked to leave their phones in silent mode and stored in backpacks while classes are in session.
A smattering of students interviewed at Miller Middle School said they stash their phones in lockers. But the majority keep them closer, in pockets or purses, although (officially) they cannot be used during school hours, including lunch.
Durango High School permits cell use during its open-campus lunch hour and passing periods in the hallways.
Educators said classes are rarely interrupted by a ringing phone. Rather, the biggest distraction is texting, the modern equivalent of note passing. It is a silent and surreptitious way to communicate, and students have honed their thumb skills to be more subtle. Some can compose full messages without breaking eye contact with a teacher.
“Students are pretty good at being sneaky about it,” DHS Assistant Principal Mike Freeburn said. “But it’s not rampant by any means. The vast majority understand and comply with the policy.”
Freeburn and Miller Principal Tam Smith said the threat of confiscation is an effective deterrent against improper use.
Smith also had high praise for the respect with which Durango youths treat their peers. At a previous job in an urban North Carolina school, he said cyberbullying was a more pronounced problem.
“In our small town, parents are more involved. We have great families, good kids. We’re a bit isolated and insulated,” he said.
Freeburn acknowledged that some electronic harassment probably goes unnoticed.
“Sometimes, inappropriate things will be sent between students having a quarrel. If (the conflict) comes to school grounds, we intervene and diffuse it,” he said. “But high school students can feel they’re ratting if they come to us. It’s looked upon as a serious violation of trust. They seem to operate under a code of silence.”
Big Picture High School, a DHS offshoot that encourages hands-on learning through internships, tries a different method. Instead of restricting cellphone use, administrator Alain Henry said the school integrates them to “mirror the real world.”
“Most businesses don’t ban cellphones (for employees). If you’re (a student) in class working on an assignment, you don’t take calls – unless it’s an emergency – because school is your place of work,” Henry said. “The kids use phones to set up internships and plan their research with outside professionals.
“Plus smartphones are a great tool for finding facts,” he said. “But if you’re killing zombies on it, you’re in trouble.”
Henry conceded that larger class sizes in most conventional schools might prevent his unorthodox approach – Big Picture has only 71 students.
For younger children, parents see the phones primarily as a safety measure and a tool for relaying logistics.
“Often, parents are trying to coordinate after-school activities and pick-up times,” Florida Mesa Principal Cindy Smart said in an email.
Animas Valley Principal Lisa Schuba views cellphone ownership as a rite of passage.
“It’s a sort of milestone – their first piece of independence,” Schuba said.
And some families don’t even have landlines anymore, she said.
Angie Blanchard thus far has resisted purchasing cellphones for her eighth-grade daughter, Sophie, and seventh-grade son, Luke. Both attend Miller. But Blanchard has started to reconsider her opposition lately, for “peace-of-mind” reasons.
“The appropriate age depends on the individual kid’s maturity and responsibility level,” she said. “When they start to go out independently with friends, the phone is important. My kids are quite the socialites.”
Katie Bachman, whose daughter Maggie is in the sixth grade at Mountain Middle School, a public charter, thought cellphones were a mixed blessing.
“With kids and adults, they make it easier to coordinate life,” she said. “But expectations are different now; anybody can (contact) you any time of day. If they can’t, they get upset. You lose a degree of anonymity.”
Experts continue to debate whether, in the long-term, cellphones will be an accessory or a hindrance to learning. Some have extolled the new possibilities of in-class polls and other interactive ways to absorb information. Others worry about shorter attention spans – compulsively checking for emails or texts – and dependency on technology to complete rudimentary tasks, such as math problems or looking up an encyclopedia entry.
“Technology is a major piece (of the future),” Schuba said. “But we need to monitor what the kids are exposed to and ensure it has educational value.”