Cell Phone Pouches Boost Student Engagement

POUGHKEEPSIE – Peter Sealy has a classmate who’s struggled to keep their grades up. Some of their scores reached into the 70s. Most were in the low 60s.

“As soon as the phone pouches were instituted they started getting 85s,” said Sealy, a Poughkeepsie High School senior and the student liaison to the Board of Education. “It is effective.”

One month after the school issued each student a Yondr pouch, a padded bag that keeps phones sealed away with a magnetic lock, many students and teachers agree they have seen an improvement in learning, interaction and student wellness.

Dr. Phee Simpson, principal of the high school, said the program was launched as a measure to increase engagement in classrooms, as well as face-to-face interaction among students, and decrease the stressors that can build through the course of the day from reading text messages and social media posts.

“I felt like if the kids were more engaged and less distracted, and couldn’t look on social media, and argue with each other over the phone,” Simpson said, “they could be more dedicated toward getting their work done.”

Increasing engagement is a key to raising graduation rates and test scores, areas of focus for the Poughkeepsie City School District. The pouches are being utilized at a growing number of schools, including such nearby city districts as Middletown and Newburgh.

As students enter Poughkeepsie High School, a member of the security team watches as they insert their phone into their pouch. At the end of the day, students can unlock their pouches at special magnets stationed on posts along the ramp that runs next to the main doors. If a student is leaving the building early, the magnets are also available in the main office, assistant principals’ offices and with the greeter at the main doors.

In emergency situations students can make a call from those offices; otherwise parents can get in touch with students by calling the school. For any student who may not have their pouch that day, the school purchased designated safes for holding phones.

While a student can still hear if their phone is going off while in the pouch, they aren’t able to access it. That, Kenroi Brown said, prevents him from going down a rabbit hole of phone-induced distraction.

“Your focus can switch in a matter of a second, just by one notification,” the senior said. “I feel like here, we’re at school, your focus should be on one thing, which is mainly to graduate after four years.”

Dr. Charles Gallo, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said he and Simpson had looked into the pouches in the summer but wanted to first see if students would follow a policy that allowed them to hold on to their phones as long as they didn’t take them out in the classroom. Too often, teachers would be interrupted by ringtones or realize they were sharing their pupils’ attention, which led Simpson to initiate the program mid-year.

Nashan Anderson said a student in her English class was among those who seemed to always have their head down at their desk looking at their phone. They wouldn’t absorb very much of each lesson. But, she pointed out, if she had them leave the class they wouldn’t hear it at all.

This quarter, that student finished with a passing grade.

“Every student is now engaged, talking with one another and getting more work done,” Anderson said. “I have had students say to me they were against the pouches in the beginning but once they actually thought about it and reflected they noticed that now, in their spare time at school, instead of being on their phones or listening to music, they’re getting their homework done and studying, so when they get home they have more free time.”

Gallo, too, has noticed students engaging in lessons to a higher degree than he’s previously seen. He said he watched students grumble on that first day in which they were issued their pouches. But, he noted, part of the district’s goal is to protect students from the negative impacts digital communication can create.

“Nobody wants to get a nasty text message during the middle of the day,” he said. “This puts a stop to that. It takes the kid out of the virtual world and back into the real world.”
Research conducted by Yondr and shared by the company not only boasts 84 percent of its more than 1,200 school partners surveyed said they saw a positive change in student engagement, but also 86 percent saw a positive change in student safety and wellness behavior.

Freshman Mia Stevens said she liked being able to check her phone but also likes not being tied to it.

“I feel like a lot of kids were on their phones just to pass the time,” she said. “They talk more and do their work more instead of sitting and doing nothing.”

Though Sealy said there was initially an “outcry” from the student body when the program began at the start of April, some have been won over and most are at least adapting to obey the rule, as they do others in the building. He acknowledged he would sometimes take his phone out to do an assignment and fall prey to the lure of apps and Internet.

“I would end up doing everything else other than the work, sometimes,” the board liaison admitted. “Now without the phones, I feel like fewer students are being distracted.”

The students may also be safer. Administrators, security members and students agree instances of fighting inside and around the school have often sprouted from digital interaction that percolates throughout the school day. Not only would fights be set up online, but everyone else knew where to go to see it, capture it on their phones and post the video.

School Resource Officer Jonathan Geuss called the addition of Yondr pouches “overwhelmingly positive,” noting social media has encouraged bullying and harassment.

“Any social psychologist can say this is a generation dealing with more depression and anxiety than previous generations. A lot of it because of how they have to deal with their online social lives besides just their regular social lives,” Geuss said. “Until they get past high school, I think not having this distraction for the six hours of school is a good thing.”

Geuss spoke while students poured out of the building at the end of a school day and down the ramp where they calmly found an open magnet and unlocked their phones. Many then stayed standing in front of the school, staring down at their screens for the first time since the morning.

Senior Danasia Powell said the pouches “help a lot of students. … it keeps them out of drama and helps them on their classwork.”

Anderson said she expected more “chaos” with students resisting the change, but that hasn’t been the case.

“Yondr pouches,” she said, “are the best thing that could have happened for this school.”

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