By CNN correspondent Deborah Feyerick with senior producer Dana Garrett
(CNN) – When seventh grader Cayleb Coyne wants to send a text in class, he slips his cell phone into his backpack and pretends to be looking for a piece of paper. Texting between classes has an added benefit. "It's harder to get caught in the hallways then it is in the class," says the soft spoken boy.
Coyne, who says he sends about 300 texts a day, has had his cell phone confiscated six times in six months. He's not the only one despite constant reminders from his principal at Haverstraw Middle School, Avis Collier Shelby. "Your cell phones are supposed to be where? Yes, in your locker. Not in class!" she announces over the schools public address system.
And yet class is exactly where they end up. According to a new study by the Pew Research Center, even in schools that ban cell phone use nearly 60% of all students admit texting-during-class – a growing problem facing schools across the country.
What to do? Michael Rich, a media expert and pediatrician who calls himself a "mediatrician" and counsels parents about teens and technology on his blog askthemediatriacian.com says, "I don't think we're going to stop the tsunami," he says. "Pandora's Box is open here. The technologies are here. What we need to do is to take control of them instead of letting them control us" – which is exactly what educators at the Haverstraw Middle School are attempting.
"You can't put the genie back in the bottle," says Principal Shelby, who is overseeing a pilot program that has distributed 75 cell phones to students in the fifth grade. Texting and calling has been disabled and Internet sites are filtered. The phones are used for things like note taking and research.
"It's not really a phone, it's their computer for class," says social studies teacher Ronald Royster, who had the class research Ellis Island on their phones, then go to Power Point. "It has not taken the place of anything. It's a resource the kids can use like a book or a notebook," he says.
For 11-year-old Kiara Rivera, Ryan Guzinski and Naya Rivera, the cell phones – renamed MLDs for mobile learning devices – have opened up new ways to learn and changed their parents perspectives. "The first week, my dad freaked out when he thought I was texting, but now he realizes it's like keeping up with our generation," says Guzinski, who made a movie about decimals on his phone during math class and who says its easier to memorize lessons.
"Its almost like you want to look at the screen, it's like a mini TV where you like, you want to look at it, you don't want to go look at a piece of paper," says Naya Rivera adding, "Now that I have this, it's kind of more fun to go on the Internet on this and experiment with it at home instead of sitting there and texting all day, like doing nothing."
Kiara Rivera, who carries about ten pounds of books in her backpack, likes it for other reasons, "Let’s say your like reading the textbook, you don't have to keep turning the page, you could just like press a button and it'll go to the next thing. So it’s easier to go on this than to go on the books."
The kids carry the devices with them all the time and have constant access to the Internet. They can send their homework assignments to their teachers, who sometimes send out reminders about assignment deadlines. District Superintendent Ileana Eckert says dollar for dollar she'd rather buy more phones than more computers. She stands by her decision to take part in the pilot program despite push-back from some teachers. "I think we're in the middle of a new revolution. It's part of who they are today. Why not use something in a positive way that they're bringing with them," she says.
At Bayside High School in Florida, principal Robin Novelli wages war daily with teens and cell phones. He patrols the hallways and says he simply has to open his palm and students know to turn over their phone. Stopping one young culprit he asks, "Why are you so addicted to this technology?"
Parents have to come to the school to collect the phones. If confiscated more than once, students risk being suspended – a relatively new policy that Novelli says has dramatically reduced the number of repeat offenders. Still, teachers confiscate phones on a daily basis and this year 200 kids have had their phones taken away.
"When you're studying math or science or English or history or whatever it might be, those students need to be fully 100% authentically engaged in the classroom and pulling out a cell phone and texting your friends about whatever it is they might be talking about, is not the learning environment that I as a principal want to promote," says Novelli. He's so adamant against cell phones, he researched the possibility of putting up a jamming signal, but was told it is illegal.
As for the fifth-graders interviewed for this article, they say their grades have gone up since using the cell phones. What's more, because they have access to so many applications like Power Point and Sketchy, they say they're actually spending a lot less time texting.