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Four Madison public schools are blocking student access to a host of popular social media apps during the school day to test whether student behavior, school safety and grades improve with fewer online distractions.

“We are looking for ways to continually improve our school climate and increase student learning,” said Cindy Green, executive director of curriculum and instruction for the Madison School District. “One way to do that is by trying to reduce the use of cellphones and social apps during the school day.”

The pilot program began May 1 at three of the schools — East High School and Wright and Cherokee Middle schools — with West High School starting on Monday.

It will run through the end of the school year for all four schools, which were selected due to their principals’ interest in the issue, with results including comparison behavior data and feedback from students, staff and families to be analyzed soon after for possible use in crafting a districtwide policy.

Making students effectively unplug their personal devices — by shutting down free wifi access to apps including Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and 30 more — is seen as a way to redirect impressionable students’ attention to learning and away from potential dangers.

The ‘zombie walk’

“Our students who are the most disengaged are typically the ones who are stuck on their phones and walking the halls with their heads down,” East principal Mike Hernandez said. “I call it the zombie walk, and unfortunately it can lead to students making some poor choices on social media with Instagram or Facebook Live.”

In meetings held before the pilot started, most students understood why classroom distractions needed to be minimized, district officials said, and they appreciated the idea of clamping down on apps to prevent bullying.

But the smart phones and tablets that so many students carry now often come with the blessing of harried parents looking to use the devices to help stay in touch with them. And reaction to shutting that system down, even partly or for just a brief period, hasn’t been uniformly positive.

“A few students and a few adults have come to me and said, ‘What you’re doing is wrong,’” Hernandez said. “Some questioned whether we shouldn’t be more about teaching how to use the Internet responsibly.

“And yes, but it’s a two-way street,” he added. “We also have to make sure they understand algebra.”

Brigit Stattelman-Scanlan, a senior at East, said the situation can be “tricky to maneuver around,” given the big role technology plays in society and schools.

“Phones are a distraction to students during class, yet they are also a valuable resource to students communicating with peers and families without a data plan,” she said. “Having wifi shut off during school and then back on after school can solve some of these issues.”

At Cherokee, one of the prerequisites to getting the pilot underway smoothly was assuring students they’d still be able to reach their parents in an emergency without access to the texting apps on their cellphones.

“They only know middle school as (their) having phones,” principal Sarah Chaja-Clardy said, adding staff pointed out that “every single classroom has a phone, and they are always welcome to stop in the office, and that we have land lines there. They don’t know what land lines are.”

Students also will retain access to their school email accounts during the pilot program, said Beth Clarke, the district’s director of instructional technology and media services, so they can reach parents that way as well about schedule changes or pickup times or any other issue.

Along with minimizing classroom distractions, officials hope the pilot will help the district craft a more uniform policy for the use of cellphones and social media, with a slate of recommended policies and procedures for schools.

Currently, all elementary schools in the district ban cellphones in the classroom, requiring them to be stored in students’ lockers throughout the day.

Policies vary among the district’s middle and high schools, depending on principal or teacher wishes and the type of space.

Results of the pilot program may also help educators teach students about appropriate versus inappropriate uses of cellphones and social media — or how to be a “good digital citizen,” as educators phrase it, in an online world.

Getting parental buy-in

Curbing impulsive behavior is part of that.

“It only takes a moment to take out your phone, click on an app and be live-streaming on Facebook Live,” Chaja-Clardy said, adding that such an action in a school setting can violate other students’ confidentiality rights and be grounds for a suspension. “It’s not that kids are even on their phone, but they see an incident and their go-to (action) is to take out their phone and record it.”

School leaders and district officials also are asking parents for help in limiting their students’ apps access during the pilot. That’s because even with the four schools’ guest wifi network now blocking student use of social media apps, many could still get to apps if they or their parents pay for a data plan and are willing to use data for it.

District officials hope they aren’t.

“If your student’s phone is on your data plan, you may wish to set data limits or restrict them from accessing data during school hours,” West High School principal Beth Thompson said Friday in an email message to parents letting them know the pilot program was starting and why.

Telling parents what was coming also was meant to protect them from any unhappy surprises, Green said.

“We could have parents receiving very high cellphone bills if their students switched to the family data plan for apps (access), and we wanted to avoid that,” Green said.

Parents have tended to clamp down on their students’ data usage when told free wifi was going away, according to feedback district officials received from area school districts who have done similar pilots the last few years.

“There were these conversations then at the kitchen table, (with parents) saying, ‘Listen, you need to now start managing your data,’” Clarke said. “They were having these really critical conversations about management, which is fantastic. It’s all about being cognizant of your digital media use in today’s world.”

‘Dual track agenda’

District officials stressed that launching the pilot program doesn’t mean anyone wants to discourage instructional technology or appropriate use of cellphones and apps.

At Cherokee, for example, all students have district-provided Chromebooks to aid in research and other computing tasks, and there are teachers throughout the district who have students use their cellphones as a means to provide feedback or to look up information using phone apps, including Kahoot and Word Reference.

“Used correctly, our cellphones are these little computers we have in our pockets that are outstanding resources,” Hernandez said. “I’ve seen teachers use them to help translate for students who speak a second language, and I’ve seen students download and use apps to use their phones as graphing calculators. With the right mindset, they’re wonderful.”

Even during the pilot, each of the four schools has two additional wifi networks running that teachers can use with students and their devices for classroom purposes.

“It’s a dual track agenda — at the same time as we’re managing use of cellphones, we’re also trying to understand digital citizenship and the positive uses of the devices and the apps,” Green said.

“A few students and a few adults have come to me and said, ‘What you’re doing is wrong.’ ” MIKE HERNANDEZ, Madison East principal

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