For a lot of kids, back-to-school shopping means checking out the latest technological gadgetry. And for educators, that means new headaches as they seek to update and enforce their policies on gadgets in the classroom.

Sure, the internet has opened a wealth of research sources to students, and a cell phone is pretty handy in an emergency. But the beep that comes from a single Tamagotchi is enough to disrupt an entire class.

The little virtual pet from Japan is expected to make a comeback this year, and new gadgets, including Gizmondo from Tiger Telematics–a handheld console that includes GPS satellite tracking, a digital camera, and a gyroscope and can play digital music, movies, and video games–are just entering the scene.

“We went from a code of conduct that talked about tape recorders to CD players to an iPod. Each time technology improves, it creates a new problem for school districts,” says Pat Ackley, principal at New Lebanon Junior-Senior High School in rural New York.

The school has specifically forbidden the Tamagotchi. “We don’t allow toys. We’d say the same thing about pet rocks,” Ackley says.

Young consumers tell The Zandl Group, a trend research firm, that when shopping for school this year they’re most interested in “tech goodies,” including Apple’s iPod music player, Playstation Portables, and Nintendo Game Boys, according to Irma Zandl, the group’s president.

Last year, the National Consumer Federation predicted that nearly half of families with school-age children would buy electronics and computer-related equipment for the new school year, and would spend more on that category than on traditional school supplies: $101 vs. $73.

Schools, however, discourage kids from toting much of this electronic gear in their backpacks.

The official policy at Westover High School in Fayetteville, N.C., is that everything from tape players to electronic games–all “sound-producing instruments or equipment”–is forbidden on school grounds and even buses between 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.

That hasn’t stopped Micelli Bianchini from bringing his phone, which also holds his day planner, to school each day, and when he returns for senior year this fall he expects to be carrying an iPod, too. His friends are similarly equipped, he says.

“You can’t let teachers see you use these things. They don’t want you talking on your phone in the middle of class. Put it in your pocket and no one really bothers you,” Micelli says.

The 17-year-old, who is ranked third in his class, recently led a successful community service project to collect supplies for an orphanage in Guyana. Without his cell phone and the laptop computer his parents gave him as a gift, he says, the Westover Kindness Project South America might never have happened.

“The computer, the phone, the day planner–you can’t really communicate or coordinate without them,” Micelli explains.

Ackley, the New Lebanon principal, says it’s a challenge to keep up with kids, who always seem to know about new tech toys before adults do. Just as she makes it a point to see teen-targeted movies, she finds out what’s coming next on the gadgetry scene.

Students at her school can bring in gadgets but must store them away and turn them off, except on bus rides and other outside trips. If students are caught with a banned item, they get a warning. The second time, the gear is likely confiscated for the day, and the third time, a parent has to pick it up.

So far, Ackley hasn’t had to deal with many cell phones because reception is poor in the school’s valley location. But a new cell tower is coming. There is no easy answer to whether phones should be allowed in school, she says, since students and parents can make a good case that, while certainly a distraction, the phones are needed for safety.

Taylor Justice, 13, of Tyler, Texas–whose favorite gadget is her MP3 music player–takes her cell phone to school each day. Her mother, Sheri, approves, even though the phone is supposed to be off during school hours.

“We’ve had lockdowns at school before, and she text-messages me to let me know what’s going on. She also calls to tell me when she needs to be picked up or where she’s going,” she says.

In New York City schools, bringing a cell phone or beeper without authorization is forbidden as part of a discipline code. Each student receives a copy of the code on the first day of school.

In the affluent Aspen School District in Colorado, many students come in each day with a phone, iPod or other music player, and a handheld video game, says superintendent Diana Sirko. But they generally respect a turn-off policy during school hours.

“The idea is that the cell phone comes to school for emergencies,” Sirko explains, “but we’re 100-percent wireless, so they can access the internet anywhere in the building–and a lot of the phones have the internet–so we’re pretty strict about no games and no chat rooms during the day, not even during breaks. It’s too hard to control what they’d be seeing.”

Certain technologies are definitely embraced in Aspen: It’s common to see a cart full of laptops wheeled into a language-arts class so kids can use them for work. And interactive whiteboards are in most classrooms.

And what’s in the superintendent’s own bag? A laptop, iPod, cell phone, and electronic calendar, she says with a laugh.


Westover High School

Aspen School District