How can you get low-cost (or no-cost) computers for your district? Easy: get them used.
By David Rapp
How to Find Cheap PCs
One-to-one computing: That’s the dream. Computers get kids excited about learning. They can help boost test scores. They expand the palette of possibilities for lesson plans, and they allow easy access to an infinite number of resources. Let’s face it, putting a computer into the hands of every student is the future, but for many cash-strapped districts, now watching even the most meager tech budgets dissipate, that future is growing more and more distant. But don’t give up the dream yet. Instead, reach out to organizations and businesses that provide donated and refurbished computers at reduced cost—and, in some cases, at no cost.
PC Rebuilders & Recyclers (PCRR) in Chicago provides donated refurbished PCs to Illinois schools and nonprofit organizations at very low cost, starting at about $150 for desktops and $350 for laptops. It operates on a cost-recovery basis, and it only charges for the refurbishing.CEO Martin Cade started PCRR in his basement in 1998. He had just attended a meeting at which he had met a recently retired executive of a waste management company who said he had a problem. “He said, ‘We have about 100 computers we don’t just want to throw away,’” says Cade. “So I went out and collected them.”
Since that encounter, his company has grown into a 13,000-square-foot refurbishing facility, which receives donations from corporations and other large institutions.Cade is one of many Microsoft Authorized Refurbishers nationwide—Microsoft-licensed companies that are able to deliver refurbished PCs with preinstalled Windows XP software licenses, keeping the computers current with the latest up-to-the-minute educational technology standards.
To date, PCRR has delivered some 40,000 refurbished PCs to schools and needy organizations. For example, the Community Youth Development Institute (CYDI) in Chicago, an alternative high school for at-risk kids and high school dropouts, has received approximately 200 computers from pcrr, including laptops for its teachers. In addition to providing the equipment, pcrr also helps keep it up and running. If a computer goes down, the school just calls PCRR, and the company fixes the problem. “There’s no way I could do it without them,” says Aaron Royster, the director of CYDI). “I don’t have an IT person. I don’t have a big enough budget.”
Indeed, cost was the reason Royster sought refurbished computers in the first place. “We were trying to deal with our budgetary constraints, but we still wanted the technology,” he says. “It’s a lot of technology we wouldn’t have had otherwise.” The school uses the computers for project-based learning, with students using Microsoft Office applications and math and reading programs. “It’s made a world of difference in how we do things,” says Royster.
Giving Tech New Life
The National Cristina foundation in Greenwich, Connecticut, has been something of a pioneer, finding innovative ways to reuse technology since 1984. “We were probably the first organization to realize that there was value in technology that was leaving what we call its ‘first life,’” says Bud Rizer, the foundation’s executive director. “We thought there was a second life for it somewhere.”
The foundation acts as a middleman between corporations and individuals who want to donate their used computers and equipment, and a prescreened network of schools, charities, and public agencies. Rizer estimates that there are about 1,500 such institutions in its system currently looking for equipment. “We’re not able to meet every organization’s needs,” says Rizer. But in most cases, the foundation is able to work with donors and recipients to figure something out.
The process is all done online. Donors type in what kind of equipment they have, and the recipient schools and other organizations enter what they’re looking for. The foundation acts as the matchmaker, finding a way to bring the two parties together.
The Cristina Foundation is also the official computer-reuse organization for online PC retailer Dell Computer. Before completing a transaction on Dell’s website, customers are asked if they have any computer equipment that they wish to donate—and if they do, they just click a button that leads them to the foundation’s website. This simple, straightforward approach has spurred a steady flow of donations. “I can safely say that not a day goes by in which we don’t get at least one donation through that channel,” says Rizer.
Look No Further Than Your PTA
of the many success stories that have come from the National Cristina Foundation’s efforts, one takes place just outside of Mountain View, California, the home of the multibillion-dollar search-engine giant Google. Most of the predominantly wealthy residents there own computers, and enjoy free, citywide Wi-Fi Internet access. But less than 10 miles away lies the tough inner-city community of East Palo Alto, where many residents struggle with poverty.
Menlo-Atherton High School serves East Palo Alto, where approximately half of the students receive free hot lunches. For many of these students, owning a computer is a remote possibility—or, at least, it had been until a PTA-run program found a way to get low-cost computers into the school, and into the homes of students and teachers.
It all started serendipitously 10 years ago, when Sue Kayton, an active PTA member, found out that her husband’s company was upgrading its equipment and therefore planning to throw out several of its computers. “Just the day before, I had received a call from one of the kid’s teachers saying, ‘We need some computers. Do you know where we could get some?’” recalls Kayton.
And so the PTA’s computer donation program began. As of today it has refurbished some 2,500 computers for the school, a portion of which students can bring home for their own use. With the assistance of the National Cristina Foundation, the program has received computers from companies all over the area, from biotechnology firms to travel agencies, and especially from law firms. “They have a lot of money, so they turn over their computers fairly quickly,” says Kayton. She estimates that she receives about two to three computers per week, though some weeks she receives more—a lot more. “The phone will ring, and a company will say, ‘We have 150 computers. Get a truck and come and get them,’” she says.
The PTA’s program is incredibly cost-efficient; in fact, it costs the school district absolutely nothing. Kayton enlists students to refurbish the computers by erasing the hard drives and installing new operating systems and education software, such as typing programs and math drills.
Some of the computers, and peripherals such as printers, go directly into classrooms, but the ones that don’t meet district standards are given to students to take home. Students can use their new machines for their homework, while their parents, meanwhile, can use them to log into the school’s system to track their child’s attendance and performance.
Technology not only helps students and parents become more engaged with education—it can fundamentally change their daily lives. Kayton remembers a story from two years ago, when a female student threw her arms around her, thanking her profusely. “For what?” Kayton asked. “For getting my teeth fixed,” she said.
The student’s father, it turned out, had been out of work for months when the family received their computer through the computer donation program. Her father typed up a resume, put it on Craigslist, and got a job with medical benefits, which included dental. The 16-year-old student was able to make her very first visit to the dentist and have her cavities filled. For years, she had been distracted in class by tooth pain. But now, thanks to the donated computer, she wasn’t hurting anymore.