School superintendents from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco weigh in on vouchers, cell phones and removing books from schools

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Education school superintendents
Van Ayres, Kurt Browning and Kevin Hendrick. Detail from file photo (Nov. 2023 by Chris Young/WMNF News).

We heard from the school superintendents from Pinellas County (Kevin Hendrick) Pasco County (Kurt Browning) and Hillsborough County (Van Ayres).

They talk about a range of education topics including new laws coming out of Tallahassee, policies on the use of mobile phones at schools, removing books from schools, poverty and community schools.

The three superintendents were recently questioned by members of the Tampa Tiger Bay Club.

Listen to the show:

Thanks to WMNF’s Chris Young and to TBAE for the audio.

This is how the three responded to a question about the use of mobile phones in classrooms.

“My kids would call me old fashioned. But being a superintendent of the district, we spend a great deal of money, trying to get our kids supported in order to make great grades do well in the state assessments so we can get out of this state oversight status. We have 9-12 schools in Pasco that are in the state status. Why do I say that? Because I think there’s a direct link between this and what goes on in a classroom and how engaged the student is in the classroom. There were three things I looked at. First thing was school safety. We’ve got kids doing stupid things by posting stupid things at the social media during school hours, that will literally shut down a school and stop instruction. Secondly, this is no newsflash, the mental health piece. Kids are so addicted, and I use the term addicted — and so are adults, by the way, so are adults — but we’re talking about kids today. They are so addicted to these things that they their their mental well being is tagged to these things and Tik Tok and whatever other platforms they’re using. I really am concerned about our female students. I mean, they hear this stuff from their friends who are hateful on these social media platforms about you’re fat, you’re ugly, nobody likes you. And they keep hearing that all the time. We just had a student in our district that committed suicide because of some social media posts, it’s horrible, it’s tragic. Third and foremost was the loss of instructional time. I was tired of walking through classrooms and seeing kids on these things, not paying attention what teachers are doing or saying. You probably saw a piece on Channel Eight this week. I am going to be proposing a district wide ban on cell phones and all of our schools. We don’t need them. If there’s something goes on in school. We’ll call your parents and we’ll tell you what’s going on. I don’t like them.

— Kurt Browning

“And I’ll add to that, so yesterday we got our great American teacher and I spoke at Tampa Heights Elementary, I spoke to 66 of our fifth graders. And I did a little cell phone activity with them. Basically, I wanted them to help me if we were to develop a policy or procedure behind cell phones, what would that be? My first question to them was, how many of you — these are fifth graders now — how many of you have a cell phone you brought with you to school today? I was expecting maybe 20%. Every one of them raised their hand. Every one: fifth graders had a cell phone that was with them and they carried in their backpacks. I had some discussion yesterday. I do believe that our elementaries we do a very good job of our elementary students. If they put them in their backpack and they turn them off and they keep them off during their entire school day. Our issue becomes in our middle and secondary where it’s hard to control it. So I look forward I got four of my board members here today we will be discussing some of that in the future but some policy or procedures behind that. My personal opinion, I don’t believe in elementary is an issue for us right now as our elementary schools follow the procedure that our schools put in place. But in and middle and second in our high schools. It’s a problem. It’s a problem because of social media. And what get posted out there. A lot of times we’ll get things that are posted out there. They’ll make fake Instagram pages, they’ll post fights and a lot of times they’ll post them on school sites and they’re not even a fight from that school. They’ll post them from somewhere in another state and it gets we have to end up dealing with it. So we’re there I look forward to to some continued discussion because there has to be some action there. And we have to get a little stricter on our end.”

— Van Ayres

“Similar thoughts in Pinellas, we’ve discussed the policy at a workshop recently we have asked the community for their feedback in a couple of public sessions that we’ve done. Think a couple of things that we focused on number one if you take the 365 days a year 14% of those minutes are spent in school, the other 86% are spent somewhere else at home with parents sleeping, doing whatever. So this mental health problem around cell phones is a school issue but it’s also a community issue. And so to address it only in school is really to say we’re not addressing the full problem. Having said that our biggest concern is what’s happening, right? So we’ve discussed that in our district. We’re a one to one district, every single student has been issued a laptop so there’s no need for them to have their phone in class for them to participate in any kind of online activity or what have you. They have a laptop and they can use it. I think we would all say we don’t want phones in schools. I think the challenge is when we call you and say we just took your child’s phone and we’re not giving it back and you have to come pick it up and yell at us and scream at us and curse at us. And then what? Right? that’s the conversation I’ve been having. It’s easy to say we don’t want them if you think that a 16 year old is gonna say okay, well, I’ll leave it at home. You’re nuts. And for some of the 16 year olds, their connection to their phone is far stronger than their connection to the adult that’s asking them to put it away. And so what happens then and what’s the consequences and how far are we willing to go with that? That’s really where we are. It’s not about do we need that but we don’t. It’s not about are they helpful? They’re not. The question is what’s the control mechanisms that you’re willing to do as a school board? Our policy allows for them to not be around. Really our elementary zero problem. And for the most part, our middle schools are not a problem. Our middle school policies pretty much are procedures and tools don’t allow them and we don’t have an issue. It is in our high schools and it’s not know so much in classrooms anymore. We’ve pretty much cut that out. Unless it’s a weak individual in the classroom. It’s fast change and then it’s lunchtime, but it does come down to one of those consequences. I can tell you that as recently is I think it was this week, I was in my office with a parent of one of our students who called them in the middle of the day. And the parents are: when ‘well they shouldn’t have their phone.’ They shouldn’t they’re calling you and you’re answering it and they’re calling you and it’s class time. So that’s the challenge that we face.”

— Kevin Hendrick

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