When students enter Obama Academy in East Liberty, they place their turned-off phones in pouches and press a green button to lock them. They hold on to the pouch until the end of the school day, when it can be opened by magnets faculty possess. 

Obama Principal Yolanda Colbert implemented the pouches, made by the California company Yondr, to create a phone-free environment. The pouches are an increasingly popular means of addressing the tension between educators’ desire for teens’ attention and the constant draw of cell phones.

Other school districts such as Penn Hills have also implemented Yondr pouches, and across the state, the Philadelphia School District is spending $5 million so that it can have students there lock up their phones. 

A Yondr pouch and the device that unlocks the pouch. (Courtesy of Yondr)
A Yondr pouch and the device that unlocks the pouch. (Courtesy of Yondr)

At Obama, students see pluses and minuses in the new policy. 

“To not be able to have my phone all day just felt very constricting and like maybe even my safety would be compromised,” said Sydney Pellegrino, an Obama student who sits on the district-wide Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, which advocates for changes PPS students want to see in the schools.

Faced with cyberbullying, Obama Academy turns to pouches

Colbert said that school-wide data from the 2021-22 academic year indicated the need to revitalize the academic environment. 

“The data was alarming in terms of incidents that involved social media, text messages, academics, behavior, attendance and parent complaints and concerns for student safety,” she said. The data also showed that 90% of students were not using their phones for academic purposes.

Students had been in remote schooling from April 2020 to May 2021. They had not learned how to speak to one another, navigate conflict or develop interpersonal skills and instead turned to social media, said Colbert.  

The administration saw increased cyberbullying, and kids becoming anxious and not wanting to come to school, according to Colbert. Staff and administration had talked for some time about new restrictions on phone use, according to Justin Collinger, a chemistry teacher at Obama. 

Obama Academy saw a potential solution in the Yondr pouches. 

Yondr pouches, created in 2014, were originally used to sequester phones in places like nightclubs and concert venues and have gradually been adopted by schools. Yondr pouches arrived at Obama Academy on Nov. 1, and Colbert promptly implemented them.  

At Obama, there is a procedure in place if a student needs to use their cell phone. The student needs to ask to be excused to the main office if a parent is trying to get in touch with them. If the student isn’t feeling well, they are sent to the nurse, and after assessing the problem, the nurse decides whether to permit the student access to their phone.  

“The focus was really on putting that phone away and focusing when you get in that classroom,” said Colbert. 

If a student at Obama is repeatedly caught with their phone, an assessment meeting ensues, at which the student is asked about their behavior. Based on the student’s response, faculty implement measures to help the student follow the policy.  

Obama students weigh distractions, safety

Obama Academy students are still leery of the new phone rules.

Three hundred school shootings occurred in the U.S. last year, according to a K-12 School Shooting Database published by researcher David Riedman.

“It is more being concerned about not being able to call my parents if something is really happening,” said Pellegrino. “With all of the school shootings happening and us being a public school in the city, there is a chance that could happen to us.” 

Some students said they understand that phones can distract from learning. “For some people, they either already know the stuff we’re learning or they don’t care enough. So then the phone does become a distraction,” Pellegrino said. 

The outside of Obama Academy 6-12 in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh.
The outside of Obama Academy, a 6-12 public school in the East Liberty, one of the newest schools in the country to adopt the use of Yondr pouches to prevent students from using their phones during school hours. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource)

“We got data from the kids,” said Colbert, noting students confirmed that they were distracted when their peers texted or played music on their phones during class. 

Even so, some high schoolers believe there were other measures that could have been taken prior to the restrictions.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and I think it’s a really great idea to have a charging station in every room,” said Pellegrino. “If you are not doing anything in class you can grab your phone off the charging station. That way whenever you need it, it is there.”

Pros and cons of ‘instant access’

The COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a new age of learning, said Carianne Bernadowski, a professor in the Department of Education at Robert Morris University. It also brought new obstacles, and teachers are struggling to keep up.

“I think we’re desperate. We want to bring [students] in, keep their attention, keep them engaged, but keeping kids engaged looks so much different than it did in the past,” she said. “They’re used to that constant flow of information and switching gears so quickly.

“We have to find a way to deflect this technology addiction they have,” Bernadowski said. “The things we can control are their cell phone usage and what they bring into the building.” 

“Parents have to be cognizant of how they’re accessing their children during the school day. It is absolutely not necessary to ask your kid where they put their baseball bag.” 

Carianne Bernadowski

Bernadowski’s son attends a school that also uses the Yondr pouches. Her son told her that students at his school are not allowed to have phones out unless the teacher says otherwise, which worries her. 

“I have to send my kid out the door every day and hope they’re armed with their phone in case there’s an emergency,” said Bernadowski. 

She continually poses a question to herself and parents generally: “Do we want instant access to our children?” 

“Yeah, I think there are times when we do, right?” she says. But with instant access, the parents have a responsibility as well.

“Parents have to be cognizant of how they’re accessing their children during the school day,” she said. “It is absolutely not necessary to ask your kid where they put their baseball bag.” 

Are the Yondr pouches in school to stay?

Colbert hopes to measure the success of Obama’s policy in multiple ways. 

She wants to see an increase in the number of students achieving honor roll, or at least see 43% of the student body, which has been the typical number, maintain that status. She also wants to see a decline in student infractions around cell phones and an increase in communication to home about students’ disruptive behavior.

Thus far, Colbert has seen a decrease in student infractions and an increase in communications to home, so she expects to maintain the policy after this academic school year. 

“I’m not going to say I’m uncompromising,” she said, “but I’m always going to be courageous enough as a leader to say, ‘While I understand your desire, solution A is the best solution for us.’”

Terryaun Bell is an editorial intern with PublicSource.

This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.

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Terryaun is a fact-checking intern at PublicSource. He is a Hopewell, Pa, native and a senior at Robert Morris University (RMU), studying for a bachelor's degree in communications with a journalism concentration...