Administration looks to drive engagement by restricting cell phones

Upper School Head Mr. Mark Fifer with a new cell phone caddy – Index Staff

With the commencement of each new school year comes a series of changes. Reflection on the past year sparks an idea for a change—something to improve the community. Over the past summer, the administration decided one change would be a wooden container with twenty-four different slots for students to place their phones in before the start of every class—a cell phone “cubby.”

Head of Upper School Mr. Mark Fifer said, “One of the pieces of feedback and undercurrents that we felt last year was that, particularly in academic spaces, the presence of cell phones was getting in the way of the learning objectives and connectivity in classes.” 

Students will place their phones in the cubby at the beginning of class, and, at the end of class, they’ll be able to take them back. However, the policy also extends to outside of the classroom. Phones will not be allowed during Academic Support Block or in dining hall lines, hallways, or Centennial Hall, a policy that was heavily pushed last year. Phones are only allowed when students are in the pods, the Big Room, the library, outdoors, or in the Community Room.

“I noticed a great improvement in Centennial Hall [after phones were restricted],” Mr. Fifer said. “It helped us to drive some of the objectives that we wanted. We wanted to create a time to fully come together and build community without the distraction of devices.” 

As of now, the presence of cell phones will only be permitted during two specific time periods: eating lunch and during free periods. 

“Free periods are probably the best,” Dean of Students Mr. Luqman Kolade said. “It makes the most sense. There’s no other time otherwise, really.”

“A lot of the research that I’m reading suggests that these devices result in higher levels of distraction.”

Head of Upper School Mr. Mark Fifer

One major source of concern from the student body was the possibility of an emergency, and students needing to contact their families at home. 

“If there’s ever an emergency such that the parent needs immediate contact with the student, then contacting the upper school office is always available,” Mr. Fifer said. “A lot of the research that I’m reading suggests that these devices result in higher levels of distraction, perhaps because they’re smaller and easier to access.”

Part of that research was a survey conducted last year to Haverford students that suggested a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on technology and student unhappiness. 

“We looked at the survey that we did last year in which there were some really clear data points that established a correlation between the amount of time that students were spending on social media apps, and their own self-reported ability to manage their time, self-reported connection to the school community, and their self-reported ability to meet their academic obligations,” Mr. Fifer said. “So in reflection, we felt as if we needed to think about the boundaries that we were putting in place regarding access and use of smartphones in classroom spaces.” 

Cell phone “cubby” in Mr. Fifer’s office – Index Staff

As for how students are reacting to this new change, many are upset. 

“It’s stupid,” Sixth Former Adon Gross said. “I get it, people will be on their phones too much, but the thing is, some people… have things like attention deficit disorder, and you need something to calm you down.” 

Gross also feels that students are educated enough to know when they need to put away their phones. 

“I can still listen, and if you’re showing something on the board, then I’ll put my phone away,” Gross said. “It’s not like I have music blasting in my ears.” 

Others feel that the upper school already has a strong enough community, and the cell phone policy might be excessive.

“Coming from multiple schools, Haverford’s more engaged than any other that I’ve been to,” said Fifth Former Sebastian Gillis. “I feel like it could be bad because it might get a lot of people in trouble, plus Haverford’s already pretty engaged.”

However, others support the policy and the positive changes that it might bring. 

“Growing up, I always went to overnight camp. I always thought that not having my phone for an extended period of time was very peaceful,” Student Body President Asa Winikur said. “So I’m in support of it. I think there’s going to be growing pains, but over time I think it’s only for the benefit of everyone because we’re going to interact more with each other and be more engaged during class.” 

Winikur also stated that he’s seen phones, and more specifically social media, hindering student experiences. 

“It’ll be eight hours of the day where you don’t have to worry about what’s going on in the social media world,” Winikur said. “I’m on social media, but I’m very anti social-media in the sense that there’s a lot of negative that it adds to our lives.” 

Sixth Form Dean and Spanish Teacher Ms. Brooke Kenna echoed a similar sentiment. 

“It’s very liberating, because you’re more present,” Kenna said. “We do use technology, I think we just need to be much more intentional about the way that we do it.”

The faculty all seem to be on the same page as to how the phone policies will be used, and the positive effect that it might entail. 

“The message from the whole upper school is that this is how we’re going to do things from now on, so the expectation is that when you walk into a classroom, your phone goes into that cubby no matter what,” Ms. Kenna said. “From time to time, I’m going to have [my students] pull out their phones and record [for assignments], but the expectation is that they go back immediately.” 

“Sometimes you’ll walk through the lunchroom and there’s ten kids sitting together, but they’re not talking with each other, they’re all on their phones.” 

Sixth Form Dean and Spanish teacher Ms. Brooke Kenna

 A large reason for the restriction of cell phones has been due to the overreliance on the devices, and teachers have witnessed that firsthand. 

“Sometimes it was just the furtive checking when I’m in the middle of a lesson or activity,” Ms. Kenna said. “Sometimes you’ll walk through the lunchroom and there’s ten kids sitting together, but they’re not talking with each other, they’re all on their phones.” 

According to the administration, the primary goal of this new policy is to improve the school’s environment and strengthen the community. 

“I think this is a part of a larger objective to try and teach the healthy use of technology and devices,” Mr. Fifer said. “We’re just trying to drive learning, engagement, and connectivity, and there’s a lot of compelling research out there that suggests that [cell phones] just don’t do that.”

Author: Casey Williams '24

Casey Williams serves as Senior Managing Editor for the 2023-2024 school year. He previously served as a News Editor where he won two Honorable Mentions for his piece "Community reacts to Kanye West's antisemitic remarks," one from Scholastic Art and Writing Awards and another from PA Press Club's 2023 Contest.