The days are over when students lose focus during a class because they can barely hear their soft-spoken classmates on the other side of the room — at least in Irvine.
Six schools in the Irvine Unified School District have equipped all their classrooms with microphones and speakers so that teacher and student voices can be heard clearly no matter where they are in the room. Teachers wear a square microphone around their necks and students can pass around a microphone as they speak up or make presentations.
Nathan Hahn, a sixth-grader at Woodbury Elementary, says the speaker helps him hear his teacher’s voice even though he sits next to an air conditioner vent.
“It helps me focus a lot better,” Hahn said.
Woodbury installed a sound system called Juno by Sonoma County-based FrontRow in 2015 in all 34 classrooms. The school received a $25,000 grant from Irvine Public Schools Foundation — a nonprofit group that raises money for Irvine Unified — to cover the cost of the project.
“Some of my students are quiet or shy or have a soft voice,” said Elicia Ehlers, a fourth grade teacher at Woodbury who co-wrote the grant application. “It gives them confidence.”
The system especially helps English learners, she said. One in four students at Woodbury doesn’t speak English at home and hasn’t reached the expected English proficiency levels. Irvine, known for its highly rated public schools, attracts families from all over the world.
In Ehlers’ recent language arts class, students passed around a hand-held microphone as they read aloud “By the Great Horn Spoon!”
“I really like using it because it makes me feel confident and it makes me feel like I have a louder voice,” said 9-year-old Michelle Lu, who is known among her classmates as having a soft voice.
Westpark Elementary, Portola Springs Elementary, Cypress Village Elementary, Beacon Park and Portola High also have voice amplifying systems in all their classrooms. Newer schools like Portola Springs have speakers built into classroom ceilings.
Carol Connor, chancellor’s professor at UC Irvine’s School of Education, said “sound field amplification” devices were initially created to help students with hearing difficulties. Then researchers discovered such systems could improve academic achievements of other students, too, she said.
Connor said she hopes the Irvine schools track whether their technology improves student achievements and teachers use it consistently.
“I think it’s a great idea, but I think it’s worth studying as well,” she said.
Judy Hawley, who teaches sixth grade at Woodbury and calls herself an “old-school teacher,” said she was skeptical of the new system.
“I was thinking, ‘This is kind of silly. I don’t need it. I’ve been doing this for years,” the 30-year teaching veteran said.
Now, she wears a microphone around her neck all day on campus.
“I’m a believer now,” Hawley said. “You can get (students’) attention a lot quicker. You don’t ever have to shout.”