But even as students have been told to leave their iPods at home, the school here in Hudson County has been handing out the portable digital players to help bilingual students with limited English ability sharpen their vocabulary and grammar by singing along to popular songs.
Next month, the Union City district will give out 300 iPods at its schools as part of a $130,000 experiment in one of New Jersey's poorest urban school systems. The effort has spurred a handful of other districts in the state, including the ones in Perth Amboy and South Brunswick, to start their own iPod programs in the last year, and the project has drawn the attention of educators from Westchester County to Monrovia, Calif.
The spread ofcomes at a time when many school districts across the country have outlawed the portable players from their buildings--along with cell phones and DVD players--because they pose a distraction, or worse, to students. In some cases, students have been caught cheating on tests by loading answers, mathematical formulas and notes onto their iPods.
But some schools are rethinking the iPod bans as they try to co-opt the devices for educational purposes. Last month, the Perth Amboy district bought 40 iPods for students to use in bilingual classes that are modeled after those in Union City. In South Brunswick, 20 iPods were used last spring in French and Spanish classes. And in North Plainfield, N.J., the district has supplied iPods to science teachers to illustrate chemistry concepts, and it is considering allowing students in those classes to use iPods that they have brought from home.
"It's an innovation," said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which selected Union City educators to speak about the iPod classes at the group's annual conference in Atlantic City Oct. 24-26. "Most people think of the iPod as just entertainment."
At José Martí, the silver iPods, with built-in video screens, cost about $250 each and are passed out at the beginning of class along with headsets and Spanish-to-English dictionaries. The iPods are collected at the end of class, and school officials said that none have disappeared or been broken.
In one recent class, eighth-grade students mouthed the words to the rock song "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T's as they played the tune on the iPods over and over again. The braver ones sang out loud.
"It speaks to me," said Stephanie Rojas, 13, who moved here last year from Puerto Rico and now prefers to sing in English. "I take a long time in the shower because I'm singing, and my brothers are like, 'Hurry up!'"
Pedro Noguera, a sociology professor at New York University who studies urban schools, said that more districts were using new technologies like iPods to connect with students. For instance, he said, teachers have designed video games around history lessons and assigned students to re-enact novels and plays on YouTube.
"You know the No. 1 complaint about school is that it's boring because the traditional way it's taught relies on passive learning," Noguera said. "It's not interactive enough."
In many affluent communities, iPods have evolved into an essential accessory for students. In 2004,by outfitting its entire freshman class with iPods that were preloaded with orientation information and even the Duke fight song. While Duke no longer gives away iPods, it maintains a pool of them that are lent to students for classes. Last spring, 93 of the 2,000 or so courses at Duke required iPods.
The Brearley School, a private girls school on Manhattan's Upper East Side, has used iPods to supplement foreign-language textbooks and its music, drama and English classes. Every Brearley student in seventh through ninth grades is required to buy or rent an iPod.
In Union City, the iPods are a splurge for many of the immigrant families who live in this densely packed urban center, once known for its embroidery factories. About 94 percent of the district's 11,000 students qualify for free or reduced lunches.
The Union City district, which has a $197 million annual budget, places a priority on bilingual classes because more than one-quarter of its students are learning basic English skills. District officials said the stakes are high; 4 of the district's 12 schools have been identified as needing improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind law, largely because not enough bilingual students have passed the state reading and math tests.