This SLO County high school has gone cellphone-free. And students actually don’t hate it

As the bell dings for the mid-morning break, something is missing from the tableau of students mingling in the main area of Lopez High School.

The students make their way out of class, chatting and laughing with each other. Some sit and pull out homework, while others congregate around the ping pong tables dominating the left side of the room. Others relax in comfy armchairs in a cordoned-off area, or play a piano.

But not one of the students is on their phones.

After a brief pilot program, Lopez High has gone entirely cellphone free — and, surprisingly, students at the Arroyo Grande continuation high school aren’t as opposed to the ban as you might think.

“I would for sure recommend it,” junior Emylee Hayes told The Tribune on Thursday. “Usually you get a text message or you get in an argument with someone over the phone and it ruins your whole day. So when it’s locked away like this, and you can’t really see anything, you’re more likely to have a good day.”

The concept isn’t new. Schools have floated cellphone bans for years, as concerns rose that the devices negatively impact students’ learning and attention.

A 2015 Centre for Economic Performance study of 91 British schools found that students at schools with mobile phone bans had test scores 6.41% higher than those that allowed cell phones. (The study’s researchers did note that the findings “do not discount the possibility that mobile phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured.”)

Lopez High is the first local high school to institute such a policy.

“It has been transformative,” English teacher Yvonne Pierce said. “Just comparing what we would deal with on a daily basis with our kids and to see the impact of their anxiety and their lack of focus, and compare that to what we are experiencing now — it’s just been a gamechanger.”

Why go phone free?

Lopez High School administrators said that the transition to no cellphones during school hours wasn’t necessarily easy — but it was necessary.

“We over the years, first with phones and then with social media — things changing — more and more kids were in the classroom using their phones, even though they really weren’t supposed to,” Principal Jennifer Bowen told The Tribune on Thursday. “Just the class time was wasted.”

Pierce, who has been teaching for 20 years, said she noticed in recent years that it was becoming more and more difficult to grab and keep students’ attention in class, often because of their phones.

“Even in the last five years, I have noticed a decline in students’ ability to engage deeply and to focus, and it’s been alarming,” she said.

Bowen said that the staff got together during the 2018-2019 school year to discuss these concerns. That’s when she floated an idea she had heard have impressive results at another continuation school: using Yondr.

Yondr utilizes locked magnetic pouches in which cellphones are placed. The phones can’t be used until the pouch is unlocked.

The company was started in 2014 by Graham Dugoni after he attended a San Francisco music festival and was concerned by attendees filming an “uninhibited” dancing man, according to a February 2018 Washington Post article.

The incident raised questions of privacy in the public sphere, he told the Post, and prompted him to come up with a company that helped people take a break from their phones.

Yondr has been used in different situations, including concerts, comedy shows, weddings and parties, as well as courts and of course, schools.

Bowen said Lopez High did a pilot program using Yondr at the end of the school year, and then fully rolled it out soon after.

Brandon Smith puts his cell phone in a locked pouch. Students are interacting more now that Lopez High School has gone “phone-free” with a new policy that prevents students and staff from using their personal phones during the school day. The phones are locked up in special pouches and kept by the student, and then unlocked at the end of the day. 8-29-2019 David Middlecamp David Middlecamp

How the cellphone ban works

The cellphone-sized Yondr pouches are magnetically activated, akin to anti-theft sensors in stores.

When they arrive for the day, Lopez High students pick up their assigned pouches at the front desk, slip their phones, set on silent, inside and then magnetically lock the pouches.

The phones then stay in the pouches, but remain in the students’ possession. The devices can be unlocked when students leave for the day.

Though Lopez High teachers are not required to use Yondr pouches, Bowen said they have been instructed to not use their phones while on campus.

One of the biggest concerns with going cellphone free is the question of safety in the event of an emergency.

Bowen said the school makes sure each classroom has a landline, and teaches students how to use it, so they can dial 911 if something were to happen. The teachers also have their cell phones on them, she noted, as an additional backup.

In the event of a school lockdown, Bowen said said, teachers can unlock the phones for students so they could contact their parents and let them know they are safe, she said.

“Besides when we first rolled it out, we haven’t had a lot of parent concerns,” Bowen said. “Actually, the parents are really excited that the kids are learning to memorize phone numbers, ’cause they don’t know phone numbers.”

Seeing results

Since making the switch, Bowen said she and the rest of the staff have seen improvements in student performance.

“We saw right away just huge differences,” she said. “Less battling with the kids, ‘put your phone away, put your phone away,’ and lost instruction time. We just see kids more focused, less distracted, less agitated.”

The students themselves also report seeing big differences in their school behavior.

“Everyone wants their phone obviously, cause it’s like a teenage thing these days, but everyone was realizing that they weren’t actually getting any work done and their schoolwork was declining because of the phone use,” senior Brandon Smith said Thursday. “So the Yondr, everyone is kinda accepting of it — even if they don’t want to use it.”

Though Smith has found there are small things to get used to — “I can’t check the time,” he said with a laugh — he said the transition has really helped him focus on his schoolwork.

“I think it’s definitely a positive for me,” Smith said. “It’s definitely improved my grades and procrastination habits.”

Senior Benjamin Torres said he’s noticed everyone interacting with each other more at school.

“A lot more people talking to each other — I’ve seen more people interacting with each other, reading, playing games, enjoying the moment with other people,” he said. “I’d say it’s a good thing.”

Torres said he was initially worried about the rule, but after a couple of weeks has gotten used to it.

Hayes, who only transferred to Lopez this year, said she felt the no-phone policy has been incredibly helpful to her — and it’s cut down on her screen time in general.

“You can check your screen time on iPhones,” she said. “Mine said I used it 40 hours one week (before Yondr). It’s reduced to more than half now.”

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