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Here’s why Blaine County is keeping cellphones out of school. ‘That time is sacred, it’s precious.’

Blaine Co. begins its 2023-24 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 30
Blaine Co. begins its 2023-24 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 30

As thousands of students – and thousands more teachers and staff – head back to school in Blaine County this year, one thing that won’t be welcome in any classrooms: cellphones.

“It's the fact that cellphones today are smartphones. They have applications, they have social media, they have games. And for young students, when they interact with those smartphones, there's a dopamine response in the brain, and it can create issues for us,” said Jim Foudy, Blaine CountySchool District Superintendent. “Additionally, the posts that are made on social media sometimes cause social and emotional challenges for our students.”

As the district prepares to begin its fall semester Aug. 30, Foudy visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the restriction, the district’s efforts to help secure affordable housing for some of its employees and how teachers will be collaborating district-wide each Wednesday through the school year.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Well, it is back to school month all across the region. Some schools have already resumed classes and more schools will be swinging their doors open in the coming days. One of those districts anticipating a new school year is the Blaine County School District. And while there are traditional elements of renewal in most districts, I think it's fair to say that there is much that is very new in Blaine County. So let's welcome Blaine County School District Superintendent Jim Foudy back to the program.

JIM FOUDY: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: Up top, remind us of when is your first day of school?

FOUDY: We can't wait to start. We are starting school this year on August 30th.

PRENTICE: I think a lot of people are interested in hearing more about your district's restriction on cell phones.

FOUDY: Sure.

PRENTICE: And remind us… there has to be much more to this than just a good idea there. There is data behind that decision?

FOUDY: Absolutely. Yeah. It's you know, and it's not so much the cellphone. Right. It's not so much about making phone calls or receiving an occasional text message. It's the fact that cellphones today are smartphones. They have applications, they have social media, they have games, etcetera. And for young students, when they interact with those smartphones, there's a dopamine response in the brain, and it can create issues for us. Additionally, the posts that are made on social media sometimes cause social and emotional challenges for our students.So we're restricting the use of cellphones in in schools specifically, which is really, when you look at it, the amount of time that students are in school. If you say students are in school about 1000 hours a year relative to the entire calendar year, and I'm talking about a 24 over seven 365 calendar. We only have students in our buildings about 13% of the year. So that time is sacred. It's precious, it's rare. And what we're hoping to do is maximize the students ability to engage in in the lessonsand the instruction that's being provided by the teacher in the classroom.

PRENTICE: Is it fair to say that… if you haven't gotten calls yet, you'll get calls in the coming days from other districts? I'm certain they are going to be keeping a close watch on this and ask, “Well, how do you make this possible?”

FOUDY: How do you make it possible? We've seen we've seen lots of examples of teachers that have made it possible over the years, both in my former district and here in Blaine County. Simple things like a shoe rack that hangs on the door with numbers on it where students can kind of check their cellphone at the door. They still have it in line of sight. It's just not on their person during class. You know, lots of solutions to that because this was a policy change. And we have a we have a public comment system that that allows the public to, you know, enter written responses to the board. We did receive several comments about this policy change. And with the exception of, I think 1 or 2, all of the feedback from families was favorable, supportive and to some extent relieved several comments that, you know, this should have been done years ago.

PRENTICE: Okay. Affordable housing is an issue just about everywhere. But we have been hearing about what you want to do specifically for your workers in your district.

FOUDY: Yeah, it's a big deal. You know, if you think about the evolution of hiring a new staff member, a new teacher, we advertise a position for several weeks. We screen the applications. We select applicants for interviews. We interview, we identify a top candidate. We extend an offer. And then the candidate at that point tries to find a place to live. And I can't tell you how many times candidates have declined the position, which then we go to our No. 2 person and they decline because they've already accepted another job. So it puts us in a position where we're not able to attract and retain the highest quality candidates. We have one house right now that was built by Wood River High School students, and that house is being rented to a staff member and his family. So we have policies and procedures in place to kind of prioritize which staff member are you going to rent this unit to? And then quite literally, just yesterday, we broke ground on the …..property, which will have a total of five units when it when it's completed. And then we have plans to build two units next to the Atkinsons market in Haley and another single family home over by whatever middle school.

PRENTICE: I've got just a few minutes left. What is help me out with this, what you call the Professional Learning Community.

FOUDY: Sure. Yeah. So professional learning communities have been around since the 1990s and they essentially ask a few simple questions What do we want students to know and be able to do? How are we going to know when they do gain that, that skill or knowledge? What do we do when students don't gain the skill or knowledge? And what do we do when they do gain it, perhaps before the rest of their peers? And it's an ongoing cycle of collaboration. It's, you know, every teacher that teaches a certain discipline in a school district collaborating with one another and then building level teams working together in what Bob Marzano refers to as a safe and collaborative culture. Picture, which is safe in the sense that it's okay for me, for me to make a mistake and to learn from you. It's okay for my students not to perform as high as yours and to have a conversation about what did you do differently and how can I, you know, improve my practices so my students are more successful to to borrow a quote from Dr. Wayne Callender, we need systems that support both students and staff. So we are humble students of the research and best practices because frankly, we don't have time to experiment on the kids. And then, you know, this this really piqued my curiosity this summer. I heard that there's absolutely no evidence of a high performing school district in which teachers work in isolation. Every single example of a high performing school district involves something like a PLC. These have been around since the 1990s. The research is strong and so we are launching this initiative. We're all in.

PRENTICE: So what would be different then?

FOUDY: So one of the things is different is we modified our calendar and we have an early release on Wednesdays that starts on September 13th, in which teachers from Carey to Ketchum will collaborate virtually on identifying what we call the essential standards. Those are the standards, what you want students to know and be able to do that. Essentially, you're going to teach to mastery and in some regressions not going to impact the student. They're going to truly have it to mastery. And then they'll develop the formative assessments that measure whether or not students obtain that that skill or that knowledge. And then in three week increments, sometimes four, they'll review the results and collaborate and talk about it and plan the next essential standard unit.

PRENTICE: Jim, how many years is it for you in education?

FOUDY: Oh, I think I'm starting 27.

PRENTICE: 27. Do you do you still get excited over a first day of school?

FOUDY: I cannot wait. I think the worst sound in the world is an empty school.

PRENTICE: 3,000 students…or thereabout?

FOUDY: 3,000 ….3,300-3,400.

PRENTICE: August 30th…a Wednesday. Still great excitement. And here's Jim Foudy, superintendent of the Blaine County School District. Great. Good luck this year to you, your staff, and all the kids. And for now, thanks for giving me some time.

FOUDY: Hey, thank you so much, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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