Nova Scotia

Halifax private school changed its culture by locking away cellphones

As Nova Scotia mulls a new policy for cellphones in schools, a private school in Halifax says it has come up with a culture-changing solution.

Since September, students in grades 7 and 8 at Armbrae Academy have been required to lock their phones inside a neoprene pouch. The phones stay there until the school day is over.

Steve Clarke, the head of school, said the Yondr pouches have eliminated the struggle between students and teachers over cellphones. The devices are simply locked up and stored at the back of the classroom.

“There are all these options that require negotiation and effort,” Clarke said. ” You get a Yondr pouch, it’s all over. It’s a physical thing that kind of de-emotionalizes everything.”

The only way to unlock the pouch is to scan it across a magnet similar to the ones used by clothing retailers. The scanning stations typically sit at the teacher’s desk, and at the school’s main desk.

Steve Clarke says the program has been so successful, it will be expanded to Grade 6 and Grade 9 for the 2024-25 school year. (CBC)

First popularized by entertainers

The pouches were first popularized by entertainers who wanted a more natural connection with their audiences during performances rather than having to look out at a sea of phones.

Clarke says he purchased 80 pouches from the California-based company to launch the pilot program. Each pouch cost $25.

A student places his Yondr pouch against a special magnet, designed to unlock the phone from the pouch.
Yondr pouches can only be unlocked with a special magnet similar to those used by clothing retailers. (CBC)

He plans to add Grade 6 and Grade 9 to the program next year.

Teachers at the school say the results have been surprising.

“The change in our culture has been night and day,” says Stephanie Sajatovich, Armbrae’s middle school director.

She said the students lose their compulsion to look at their phones and they look at each other instead.

They weren’t enthusiastic at the beginning, but they’ve come around to the idea, she added.

“Our teachers are not nagging students,” Sajatovich said. “It’s like they’re not on the lookout all the time to make sure that they’re doing what they should be doing.”

No longer glued to phones

Grade 8 teacher Olivia Hodder said one of the outcomes is students have turned to each other for camaraderie and entertainment.

“They’re not glued to their phones, but they are interacting with each other,” Hodder said. “They’re going outside, they’re playing, they’re being active. And so it’s been, as a teacher, a really nice classroom management strategy to have.”

Hodder keeps the unlocking device at the front of the classroom.

The pouches are only unlocked when students leave the campus — not during recess, lunch or bathroom breaks.

Hodder’s students are ages 13 to 14. She said it is a crucial time for them to develop good habits.

“By removing that temptation, by ensuring that they’re socializing and being active, it’s made a big difference for their development.”

Students adapting

Student Finn Sangster said it took some adjusting.

“It’s kind of hard in the beginning, especially just, like, even when it buzzes and hearing it buzz, like, you want to check your phone, but then it’s locked up so you can’t. But once you get used to it, it’s fine,” said Sangster.

A young woman is seen in a classroom. She wears a blue polo, the school uniform. Several of her classmates can be seen in the background.
Student Abby Sullivan says it’s easier to focus in class with phones locked away. (CBC)

Classmate Abby Sullivan said the classroom is far less chaotic without cellphones.

“You don’t have people taking videos of other people in classes,” Sullivan said. “You don’t have other people trying to show you things while you’re trying to focus. And it eliminates the distraction of wanting to go grab your phone.”

But could Yondr pouches work in public schools?

Ryan Lutes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union, said it is unlikely.

“In a school like Citadel High or Halifax West or [Cobequid Educational Centre] where you have 2,000 students, can you manage that?” Lutes said.

“I think that’s why it’s really important that the Department of Education is doing consultation with teachers, administrators and parents to get a policy that’s right because I think what we’re doing right now isn’t consistent and it isn’t working.”

The Nova Scotia government is currently working on a new policy related to cellphones in classrooms. The province’s education minister said the plan is to have something ready in time for September.

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