Schools in Palm Beach County are fast embracing newer technology, by loosening restrictions on student cell phones and teaching more with iPads and iPods.
"Why put it in your backpack when you can use it in a positive way for education?" said Rochelle Swartz, a third-grade teacher at Diamond View Elementary in Greenacres who started a project with 25 iPod Touches that rotate among some classes this year.
The School Board, which in 2007 unsuccessfully lobbied the state for a public school ban on cell phones because of cyberbullying concerns, last month signaled a strong desire to promote the use of smart phones and other handheld devices on all campuses.
"It has huge learning implications for the classroom," said Assistant Superintendent Keith Oswald. "We have to keep up with that."
A proposed policy still requires vigilance by principals and administrators to prevent abuses and "disruption in the learning environment."
Students will have their devices confiscated and face discipline if caught using the devices inappropriately, such as with "profane, indecent, obscene, threatening, discriminatory, bullying or harassing language, pictures or gestures."
Yet for the first time, the board would grant permission for elementary students to use their cell phones, iPods and other wireless technology on campus — before and after the school day. During class time and on school buses, the devices must be kept out of sight, powered off and "not simply set on a vibrate, silent, standby, hibernation or airplane mode."
Middle and high school principals also would be free to permit students to use the devices during school time as long as parents are notified. These changes would likely start with the 2012-13 school year.
Most important, says Oswald, is the new rules authorize what schools are already doing on a limited, but growing scale: Give iPads and iPods to students and have them tap various educational apps.
By structuring classes around school-issued devices, participating schools are able to ensure fairness since many families can't afford the latest gadgets, Oswald said.
Nine schools are participating in formal trial projects with iPads, including four of the 12 most academically challenging schools in the district.
"It's really exciting for the kids," said Ian Saltzman, area superintendent for transformation schools. "This is a great opportunity for the community."
At Pleasant City Elementary in West Palm Beach, all 200 students in grades 1-5, and their teachers, are assigned iPads purchased with federal grant dollars. The units are delivered to each classroom in the morning and retrieved at dismissal.
"I maintain and update the operating system, apps and books on each device and instruct the teachers and students on their use," said Brian Dawson, technology coordinator at the school, which improved from an F grade to an A last year.
Principal Adam Miller of Pioneer Park Elementary in Belle Glade said about half of the 425 students at the C-rated school have iPads and "the plan is to get an iPad in the hands of every student." Eventually they may even get to take them home.
"It's all about engagement with the students," Miller said. "We're using iPads to supplement regular instruction."
Rochelle Swartz, the Diamond View teacher overseeing the iPod program, will present her efforts to educators at the district's annual technology conference on March 26. The topic: "Making classroom life easier with iPod, iPad."
She hopes her school can acquire many more of the devices, so eventually all 1,100 students can take advantage of the free math and reading apps.
"It would have a huge impact if students could use it every day," Swartz said.
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