There’s something noticeably different at Nolan Catholic High School in Fort Worth this year.
It’s not new uniforms or facilities. It’s the absence of something that accounts for what principal Oscar Ortiz calls a remarkable cultural shift.
There are no cellphones in use during the school day.
Students are required to keep them in backpacks inside their lockers.
If students are caught using their phones, the devices are confiscated and must be retrieved by a parent or guardian after a small fine is paid.
To a home-schooling parent like me, this doesn’t seem a novel or even particularly harsh policy.
Aren’t smartphones almost always prohibited in places of learning?
According to federal data, close to 77 percent of schools in the U.S. reportedly ban cellphone use in schools.
But practice looks different than policy.
Before this year, Nolan had a no-cellphone policy in place. But as Ortiz explained, when such policies don’t take into account what that means for teachers in the classroom, they are difficult to enforce and make other rules seem arbitrary.
That isn’t just the case at Nolan.
A friend who has taught at an area public school for nearly a decade laughed when I asked about his experience with cellphones in the classroom.
The school had a policy, he said, but kids were on their phones anyway and there was nothing he could do about it.
“I would teach to the two or three students who actually came to learn,” he said.
Ortiz, though, has seen previous cellphone policies implemented successfully. At Nolan, he wanted to be intentional about “creating a space where children can learn the right way,” free from distraction.
Thus far, this more robust policy seems to be working.
Ortiz estimates the school has minimized cell phone use by 85%-90%.
In the first seven weeks of school, teachers and administrators have collected only 12 devices, compared to last year’s 12-15 a day.
Device denial is a difficult adjustment at first, but teachers report that students are already more engaged, livelier and more attentive.
But what’s truly extraordinary about the policy is the effect it’s had on student culture.
“For the first time in a long time, [the students] can actually have friendships again,” Ortiz said. “Real conversations in the hallways and lunch rooms. Real human interactions.”
It seems that when kids are allowed to use their devices during the school day, they ambulate the hallways like extras on the set of “The Walking Dead,” barely lifting their eyes, never acknowledging each other.
Now, they greet adults in the hallway.
Even their posture has changed. Now, they look up.
Parents are reporting that the positive behavioral changes extend beyond the classroom and into the home, Ortiz said. Family dinners are more engaging. Conversations are more frequent. Cell phone use in the home is now comparatively minimal.
It’s a throwback to a simpler time, before the ubiquity of smartphones changed the way we interact with the world around us, frequently for the worse.
Smartphones allow for constant communication, but they also expose kids to a litany of vices and dangers, from prolific online pornography and sexting to cyberbullying and online predators.
Being off their phones during the school day won’t eliminate those dangers, but it certainly reduces the number of opportunities for kids to be exposed to them.
“Most schools are already dealing with issues regarding porn and [cyber] bullying,” Ortiz said. “We have not this year.”
Protecting kids from online dangers, keeping them focused on academic work and allowing them the freedom to “be kids again” without the sense that every interaction could end up circulating through school in a social media post — all are positive outcomes of cell phone policies like Nolan’s.
But for Nolan, which is a Catholic institution, the cell phone policy also serves a higher purpose. It creates an atmosphere conducive to pursuing what is true, beautiful and good.
“We don’t want our children changing their behavior only due to external factors,” Ortiz said.
Prohibitions help reduce distractions, but motivating kids to want to do good for its own sake takes something a bit more, something a bit harder to pinpoint.
But if Nolan’s cell phone policy success is any indicator, the school is well on its way to achieving that goal.