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High school high tech

Sure, teens have all the latest fun gadgets: Game Boys, digital audio players, cell phones. But today's high school scholar also sports graphing calculators, spellcheckers and micro-casette recorders.

By CHRISTOPHER BLANK

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Brent Sisgold, 17, of Palm Harbor, shows some of the gadgets he uses. For high schoolers being equipped with electronic items is no longer hip, it’s the norm.
Assistant principal Janice Barge Clarke rummages through a box of confiscated items at Southside Fundamental School in St. Petersburg. They all have telling similarities: plastic, small and packed with microchips.

She finds video games, calculator watches and a Walkman. There's also a cell phone and a few beepers. "None of them are operable," she said, laughing at the thought the students were putting on airs. "They're wearing them for show."

Technology isn't just for the parental units anymore. Sure, teenagers have the hottest video games and the snazziest headphones. But more than ever, getting equipped with the latest gadgetry is not only cool, it's par for the course, be it Spanish, algebra or social studies.

Though trendiness is certainly part of it, the quest for the latest technology can be academic as well. Among the electronics approved by many schools are pocket-size translators, spellcheckers and micro-cassette recorders.

More often, though, the latest technical advancement falls under "entertainment," and also under the list of forbidden campus gizmos. These include CD and MP3 music players, mini-video game players, pocket televisions, cell phones and beepers.

Despite rules relegating these items to lockers, Martin Shapiro, principal of the Center for Advanced Technologies, or CAT, at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, recognizes his students' need to be on the cusp. "More students are using personal digital devices," Shapiro said. "You can find one in almost any book bag on campus."

At the technology magnet school, students work in classrooms surrounded by powerful computers that run the latest programs. Some kids are known to memorize pi to hundreds of decimal places or run computer businesses after class.

In the CAT courtyard recently, a group of students meeting for lunch -- mostly guys -- were asked to unleash the electronic marvels concealed within their backpacks. Surprisingly, there were no contraband MP3 players, no Palm organizers or two-way radios. Instead, in a brainy display of one-upmanship, the guys pulled out calculators, the big ones used for tricky math problems.

"This is what we fight over: Who has the best calculator," senior Brent Sisgold said apologetically.

The graphing calculator is a daily necessity for some students, especially those in high-level math classes. They aren't cheap. The better ones cost about $150 and come with epic-size instruction manuals. Some models can be connected to the Internet to have problem-solving programs downloaded into them.

But some high-end calculators are taboo at school. The best ones, with enviable alpha-numeric keypads, don't meet Advance Placement test guidelines. They're just too good.

Regarding Palms and laptops, the high-tech students agreed they'd rather spend the money from part-time jobs upgrading their home computers.

"Palm Pilots are fairly overrated," Sisgold said. "They may do a lot of things but the calculators are what we use. Palms are more suitable for business people. I don't have a problem remembering the order of my six classes. I'd rather buy a calendar."

The lunch pals nodded, though Sisgold added, "But pencil and paper are so . . . quaint."

That high school has become high tech isn't surprising. Age, however, does influence the types of devices students carry.

At Southside, a middle school, one of assistant principal Clarke's more frequent confiscations is the Nintendo Game Boy, a stashable, portable video game player. Although Game Boy has been around for 11 years, the constant upgrades and attachments make it a favorite among younger teens. From grainy beginnings, the Game Boy now comes in color and has ports that allow it, among other things, to take pictures and print them on a special Game Boy printer.

While items such as Game Boy and cell phones have long been against school rules, advances in technology (and, more important, its improving affordability) continue to raise questions among school officials about what should and shouldn't be allowed in the classroom.

While Palm organizers are too costly for most students, teachers see them springing up on desks alongside laptop computers. Eventually, these could become mainstream, helping students organize their lives, assemble reports and do Internet research. But how will teachers know students aren't zapping e-mails across the room? And what happens when techie pranksters get creative, such as using the infrared beam on a Palm to change the channels on the class television?

"Really, this is such a new issue we don't have any rules against them," said Nancy Zambito, Area 1 director of operations for Pinellas County schools. "They won't be a problem until we find students using them inappropriately. So far we haven't had any complaints.'"

Zambito helps update the countywide policy that dictates which electronics pass muster. Generally, nuisance factor determines what gets zapped by the Code of Conduct. Radios disrupt classes. Video games distract students. Cell phones and beepers originally were banned by law because of their drug culture associations. But with more and more students toting cell phones, Zambito said the main beef these days is that students shouldn't be fielding calls in class.

As far as keeping up with the latest in technology, Zambito said: "If you start adding every device, you'd have pages of lists. We wait and see if something causes a problem."

The Pinellas and Hillsborough school boards give principals some discretion on devices. With the rare laptop and Palm on shaky ground, the main argument against them is their attraction for thieves. Not even a locker's sturdy, school-sanctioned Master padlock is enough insurance. Parents inevitably and unwittingly may help principals make the decision.

"We hear about it when things get stolen. Parents get very upset that we have allowed their child to bring an expensive electronic device on campus," Zambito said. "Where are they going to put it? We're not a bank.'"

Even as carrying cool electronics becomes more popular with teens, many school officials said there have been few problems with rule breakers. Jeff Rawlins, assistant principal at Plant High School in Tampa, said he has confiscated only one or two cell phones this year. Fewer people get caught as the year goes on. Only brazen users lose their goods.

Inconspicuous consumption is a tough tactic for teens, especially since the purpose of having the latest stuff is bragging rights. On a typical weekend at the mall, it's an electronic free-for-all. There, you'll find teenagers showing off Rios that play MP3 music downloaded from the Internet, walkie-talkies and personal messaging devices.

At Countryside Mall in Clearwater, Warren Mellow, who works for VoiceStream Wireless, has watched his clientele get progressively younger. Because it takes a parent's credit rating for those under 18 to get cell phone service, Mellow says he often sees 12- and 13-year-olds dragging parents to the counter.

"The kids always want the coolest-looking cell phones," Mellow said. '"The parents want to know what functions it comes with. There is always that initial conversation about how the kid isn't allowed to go over a certain amount of minutes, and if they do, it comes out of their allowance."

For some teen supersocialites, both a cell phone and a pager are essential. "There are certain people you don't want to give your cell phone number to, so you let them page you," said Kim Creamer, a Dixie Hollins High School junior hanging out in Tyrone Square Mall in St. Petersburg. What kind of people would that be? "Stalkers," she laughed.

Dontay Smith, a freshman at St. Petersburg Junior College, pulls out his pager and cell phone, with matching red cases that complement his Buccaneer clothing ensemble. For him, the latest technology means always being reachable. No mention if it helps with school work.

Adults long have reaped the rewards of technology. Now kids, with financial help from parents, are learning how to stay on top of trends while staying out of trouble with authority figures. Just ask Holly Cornish, a student at Dixie Hollins.

Her cell phone rings amid the din of the Tyrone food court. The conversation among her friends hushes. When she hangs up, Cornish appears stricken. "It was my Mom," she said. "I've got to go home now."

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