By Jennifer Medina
What’s the cheapest way to text message your friends? For thousands of the city’s middle school students, the answer now is to earn an “A.”
Education officials began doling out cellphones to 2,500 students on Wednesday as part of a closely watched experiment to try to change the way teenagers think about doing well in school. The pilot program, at three Brooklyn middle schools and four charter schools, is part of an effort by Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein to motivate students to perform better academically — and reward them when they do.
Each student is receiving a Samsung flip-phone in a package specially designed with the program’s logo. The phones come loaded with 130 prepaid minutes. Good behavior, attendance, homework and test scores will be rewarded with additional minutes. Teachers and administrators will also be able to use a system to send text messages to several students at a time, to remind them, say, of upcoming tests and other school information.
Some critics say it is absurd for school officials to reward students with a device that is banned from the public schools.
Mr. Klein gamely tried to brush off such criticism during a press conference announcing the start of the program at Intermediate School 349 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
“Every kid in the city, if they could afford one, would have a cellphone,” Mr. Klein said. “They live a life outside of school. It’s like anything else. You can play basketball when you’re outside school, but you can’t play it in the middle of math class.”
As he pulled out a sample phone to show to reporters, Mr. Klein pointedly took the battery out to ensure that the phone could not be used in the school.
But no sooner had the press conference ended when one of the teenagers standing behind Mr. Klein proved that even “A” students break the rules when it comes to the cellphone ban.
Sherilyn Calvo, 12, a seventh grader, said she had brought her phone — a Sidekick model issued by T-Mobile — to school nearly every day in the last year.
“I leave it off and never get caught,” she said matter-of-factly.
Sherilyn, who said she was already an “A” student, said she was looking forward to getting the text messages reminding her to do her homework or a buzz with the news an upcoming test.
“Sometimes we have five tests at a time,” she said. “It’s hard to know and remember what you’re supposed to study for.”
Orielee Arias, a friend of Sherilyn’s standing nearby, said that she forgot a science test a few weeks ago. “Now that won’t happen,” she said cheerily. “My teacher can text me.”
The program, called “Million,” to refer to the city’s 1.1 million students, is being designed and monitored by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard economist who, as the city’s chief equality officer, is also overseeing a project to reward students with cash for doing well on tests.
While some have criticized Mr. Fryer’s incentive programs, saying they undermine the idea of learning simply for the sake of learning, Mr. Klein has ardently defended the experiments.
“This is not about preaching, this is about reality,” Mr. Klein said. “We have an enormous set of challenges of student motivation in their education and finding ways to get those kids excited.”
The $2 million for the pilot cellphone program was raised from private donors through the Fund for Public Schools. The program was substantially scaled back from a target of 10,000 to 15,000 students, in part because the department was unable to raise enough money for so many students.
Mr. Fryer is also trying to get celebrities to take part in the program, perhaps by recording messages for the students’ phones or offering free concerts. He said he wanted the program to be more creative and extensive than a traditional public service effort.
“You can try messaging campaigns by putting up billboards; in my neighborhood back home it was ‘Crack is whack, school is cool,’ ” Mr. Fryer said, referring to a public service slogan from the 1980s. “Basically, the message was whack.”
He added, “We want to reach kids where they are, and where they are is hanging out; they’re texting.”