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A Kansas City high school locked up students’ phones, and found it left more time for learning

DeLaSalle High School says its cell phone ban helped reclaim learning time, but it might heed student advocacy to relax the policy.
Photo illustration by Vaughn Wheat
The Beacon
DeLaSalle High School says its cell phone ban helped reclaim learning time, but it might heed student advocacy to relax the policy.

DeLaSalle, a charter school in Kansas City, started requiring students to place their cell phones in magnetically sealed bags in 2023. But now it’s thinking about relaxing the policy in response to student feedback.

FaceTime calls. Blaring music. Video games.

“You name it, it was happening” during class at DeLaSalle High School, said Breona Ward, director of college and career progressions.

Students’ cellphone use got in the way of learning at the Kansas City charter school.

The difference Ward saw in her English classroom was “night and day” after a crackdown on cellphones midway through the 2022-23 school year. With students’ phones locked up, she saw fewer power struggles, disruptions and social media-fueled conflicts.

Even students’ downtime was different, Ward said. Instead of having their heads bowed, eyes fixed on phones, they talked with one another and played board games.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “You see kids who normally aren’t talking to each other, they’re not in the same friend group, but they are growing bonds, and they’re actually communicating.”

But 18 months after introducing a stricter cellphone policy, the Kansas City charter school is pondering how to ease up without reverting to the same old problems.

Students are advocating to use their phones in some circumstances, such as outside of class. Executive director Sean Stalling wants to encourage their initiative.

“While I might not agree 100% with every change” students have proposed, Stalling said, “I will agree 100% that having the policy that’s co-created with students and school … will be easier to enforce and easier to implement.”

How the policy worked

DeLaSalle launched its strict approach to cellphone use in early 2023.

The school — which specializes in working with students who were behind on credits or otherwise struggled at other high schools — urgently needed to get more out of classroom time. After all, they were still catching up from the pandemic.

Some research shows negative impacts on academic performance, mental health and exercise when students use cellphones in school.

Three-quarters of public schools nationally prohibited using cellphones for nonacademic reasons during the 2020-21 school year, but enforcement of those bans is wildly uneven. A 2023 study of about 200 children ages 11 to 17 found 97% of them used cellphones in school.

Rather than just putting a cellphone ban in writing, DeLaSalle used magnetically sealed pouches made by Yondr and marketed for schools, events and workplaces. Students can carry the pouches with them, but they only open with a special unlocking station.

At least, that’s how it was supposed to work.

Students quickly discovered that the pouches are fallible, Principal Erin Wilmore said.

A Google search brings up advice on breaching the lock, sometimes without tell-tale damage.

Students’ attempts to skirt the policy have required the school to devote time to enforcement rather than relying on Yondr alone, Wilmore said.

As part of the morning routine, students go through bag checks and Wilmore or a vice principal examines every Yondr pouch. When they find a damaged pouch, they toss it.

In class, teachers who catch students using phones call administrators.

Students who violate the policy can have their phones confiscated during school, sometimes for days or weeks. Other than those consequences, the policy isn’t meant to be punitive.

“We do not want to suspend kids, restrict them and do things to them that could lead to them not being in school,” Stalling said.

Students also got around the policy by bringing tablets — too big to fit in Yondr pouches — or Apple watches, Ward said. But in general, those devices have been less disruptive than phones. For example, it’s easier to see at a glance how a student is using a tablet.

Reactions and impact

Stalling said the policy left more time for teaching.

Students beat the scores of their Kansas City Public Schools neighborhood high school peers, on average, when they took their 2023 state English exams. DeLaSalle records also show they narrowed the gap on math scores. Final scores for 2024 aren’t available yet.

Stalling said it’s notable because many DeLaSalle students previously struggled in those neighborhood schools. It’s not clear how much of the improvement is a result of the cellphone policy.

Teachers generally supported launching the cellphone policy, Stalling said, with the exception of one who already had a policy that was working well.

Wilmore, the principal, said teachers generally appreciate the clarity and the attempt to reclaim instruction time. But they also say enforcement — hailing an administrator when a kid gets busted for using a phone — can pose its own distraction.

About 95% of parents also support the policy, Stalling said. Some even help enforce it.

“We have had parents call us to say, ‘Hey, my son just called me from the bathroom, and I know he’s not supposed to have his phone,’” he said.

Some parents say they worry about safety and how they’d reach their child during a shooting or some other crisis, Ward said.

The school made exceptions for special circumstances such as students using phones to monitor medical conditions, expecting an important phone call from court or going through a family tragedy.

Students who go off campus for internships or college classes are generally allowed to keep their phones with them for safety reasons, Ward said.

She thinks phones pose their own risks. Social media drama “spills over into real life here in the building,” she said. “Behavioral incidents have (gone) down significantly because they have less access to their phones.”

Phone restrictions also prevent real-life teasing or conflict from being recorded, going viral and becoming a schoolwide incident, Stalling said.

Students, generally, aren’t so hot on the policy.

Administrators and students are negotiating potential changes, Stalling said. DeLaSalle will still keep phones out of class but could retire Yondr pouches — unless a student breaks the rules.

“Instructional time will still be sacred,” Stalling said. But “students have lunch, students have passing periods, students have out-of-the-building programs. And so there are times that the students would like to have access to their phone.”

Ideas about tweaking the policy are worth listening to, Wilmore said. But she also likes what the strict version of the cellphone ban has done.

Students now understand, she said, “that we’re not going to let phones take away from the culture of learning. … It showed them an extremity. Now, it’s putting the ball back in their court if we revise the policy.”

This story was originally published by The Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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