At first glance, the first-graders in Mrs. Stephan's classroom at Scenic Heights Elementary in Minnetonka appear to be chatting online with their pals, Facebook-style, instead of learning math.

As their classmates' names and profiles pop up -- listing favorite foods, pets and hobbies -- their eyes stay fixed on their screens. Each student follows an animated turtle that scales mountains, windsurfs and embarks on other adventures, based on how well the child correctly answers math questions.

Sarah Stephan walks by and pauses. Instead of scolding them, she urges: Keep going.

Minnetonka is one of the nation's first school districts to try Planet Turtle, a new educational software program designed to drill kids on early math skills. Aimed at the district's first-, second-, and third-graders, it demands using social media-type tools -- forcing kids to interact -- rather than working alone with paper-and-pencil worksheets.

The pilot program signals a major shift in school leaders' attitudes toward social networking in schools.

Once viewed as a hindrance to learning at best, and a threat to student safety at worst, social networking technology is now being embraced by more schools.

From Roseville to Mounds View to Bloomington, school districts are cautiously wading into the choppy waters of social media, trying to harness its power to engage students and enhance learning.

"We see a definite need to reach kids in the medium of the way they're living life right now," said Dave Eisenmann, technology integration specialist for Minnetonka Public Schools. "They're connected all the time to their friends. Why does it all have to stop when they come to school?"

A recent report by the National School Boards Association urged school leaders to consider using social networking tools in the classroom.

"We wanted to educate the public and say this is what kids are doing outside of school," said Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the NSBA. "They're spending a lot of their own time creating content, reading and writing. Last time I checked, those are things we really wanted kids to do."

As social networking becomes more mainstream, teachers and school leaders are becoming more comfortable with it, Flynn said.

This school year, Roseville school leaders unblocked Facebook and YouTube from school computers, allowing students to access the sites.

Gregg Martinson, media specialist at Roseville Area High School, said the change has been a mixed blessing.

He spends a fair amount of time telling students to stop socializing online and reminding them to use those sites only for schoolwork.

But opening the social networking world has proven useful for school groups looking to organize and connect with members during the day about activities.

"For classroom teachers, the challenge is how do I, if I'm teaching, say, word processing, make sure that they're doing that and not just flipping to their Facebook (page) while they're doing that," he said.

High school officials in Roseville also have created smaller social networks that while closed to the wider cyberspace world, allow only students in a specific class or activity to join the site.

About 60 students involved in a program that helps prepare them for college now log onto an online social network created just for them by the school through a website called NING.

In recent years, a host of education curriculum firms have introduced products to help teachers create contained social networking sites such as Planet Turtle for school use.

At Chippewa Middle School in Mounds View, students using the library's new online catalog can create a friends list, share book recommendations with their friends, and post reviews for anyone in their school and in the district to see.

It's the second year the school has used the new catalog software.

Through the controlled site, students have their own accounts. They can create virtual bookshelves filled with book titles they plan to read and ones they have already read.

Emily Hope Hofher, a school library media specialist, says the new tool has already proven that it's a valuable way to engage students.

"If you assign a kid to write a book report, they'll do it begrudgingly," she said. But as soon as the library launched the new catalog system, kids were writing elaborate book reviews with detailed plot reviews and character description.

"They did it for fun," she said. "I was getting 30 reviews a day."

She's also noticed more kids checking out books since the new catalog arrived, adding that the school circulates about 23,000 books per year.

"You want to tap into its power because it's not going anywhere," Hope Hofher said of social media technology. "To ban it, to block it altogether, I see as counterintuitive."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488