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6th August

First Published in The New York Sun, August 6, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

During the past five years, I have written extensively in this space on all sorts of high-minded educational topics. I have discussed instruction, standards, and testing, both in a general way, and as it pertains to our schools right here in Gotham.

Yet our City Council never seems to address any of the issues I raise. It is true that they don’t control the schools, the mayor does, but they do have a big say over the budget and, as a former education committee chairwoman, Eva Moskowitz, proved, has quite a bully pulpit.

Finally the City Council has weighed in on the schools, not on an issue such as the abandonment of mandatory arts funding, once considered an important Council initiative, or testing or curriculum or even a much needed home rule message to Albany to make some critical mid-course corrections in the governance structure.

Instead, the City Council has weighed in on cell phones. Typically, they are on the wrong side of the issue.

The mayor and chancellor have instituted a zero tolerance policy regarding cell phones. If a student is found to have one on his person within the confines of the school building, the gizmo will be confiscated.

Parents are angry. In most cases they purchased the cell phones for their children so that they can keep in touch. The outbreak of the war weighs heavily here. The reduction of the neighborhood and community role in the schools, with the dispersion of more students throughout the city, animates these parental concerns.

The Council has weighed in on the side of the parents, crafting a bill that prevents the Department of Education from enforcing the cell phone ban, even though the mayor and Chancellor Klein are right. Cell phones are a distraction in the schools simply because they are being put in the hands of children, many of whom will use the many features that have nothing to do with keeping in touch with mom and dad.

Cameras, now included on many cell phones, are used to take pictures of unsuspecting classmates in the restrooms and locker rooms. Video games are included or downloadable on some phones. Text messaging allows students to converse silently during class or cheat on exams.

Allow me to propose a solution to the problem, one that will take initiative and creativity but could satisfy the needs of everyone. To the man who brought the high-tech “Bloomberg box” to the financial industry, I propose the low-tech “Wolf phone” for the schools.

I say let the parents give cell phones to their children, but a stripped down model designed for and approved by the public school system. This phone will have the capability to make and receive calls, period. No camera, no large color display, no text messaging capability. Just a telephone.

The phone will have a special chip set that will prevent it from making or receiving outside calls within the school building. Enter the building and, to the outside world, the phone is shut off. Leave and it is connected once again. The only calls that can be received in the building would be calls from the principal’s office.

Parents can then contact their child in an emergency, as they could in the pre-cell phone era by calling the school office. The new technology just makes it easier to track down the student within the building.

The only outgoing calls that could be made on this stripped-down “Wolf Phone” would be 911 calls to School Security within the building. If the bully is confronting a child in the third floor boys’ bathroom, he or a friend can summon help.

Considering that full-featured phones cost so little, the “Wolf Phone” that has so little in the way of features should be even cheaper. Cell phone service providers can bundle them along with phones for their parents in a sort of school-friendly family plan. With more than a million New York City public school pupils, it seems to me that the market is there.

With the availability of such a phone, parents could keep in touch with their children, the school could track down students a bit easier, and the disruptions and abuses would be eliminated. Certainly this is a more elegant solution than building banks of “lockers” for the phones outside school buildings. If a student brings anything other than a “Wolf Phone” to school, the offending instrument can take its rightful place in the bottom drawer of the principal’s desk.

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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