Old computers find new homes with needy students in Arlington district

ARLINGTON -- You won't find them in slick advertisements that trumpet the dazzling speed and versatility of the latest personal computers.

But these old machines, worn out by a million fingertips during their service to the school district, are finding new life in the homes of students whose families can't afford to buy a computer.

For the past five years, like Santa's elves in their workshop, staffers in the district's technology support department have been refurbishing computers that previously would have been shuttled away to a public auction.

About 300 computers a year are donated to selected families to help fill what officials consider a critical educational gap. They believe students who don't have adequate after-school access to a computer often have trouble keeping up with their classmates.

Most of the renewed products of the Computers for Kids program are about eight years old, which is the district's target age for replacing its front-line processors. But they still pack enough firepower for word processing, Internet research and most other basic educational duties, said technology support director Ed Cannady.

"They're decent computers," he said. "We try to do as many as we can. We've had good responses from the schools."

His computers are always in demand. When he gets a batch ready, he notifies school principals via the district's in-house website, and the campuses find homes for them.

Smiles all around

It's a mission that earns smiles not only from families but also from school employees like Robyn Anaya, a social worker at the Newcomer Center at Workman Junior High School who helps immigrant students transition into an English-speaking culture.

The center has put her in charge of getting as many free computers as she can and then pairing them with the disadvantaged students who would best benefit from them.

"So many of the students who come here are at risk, and many of them wouldn't have a chance -- at least in the near future -- to get a computer and Internet access for homework, for keyboarding and doing papers," Anaya said.

One of the best parts: explaining to the grateful recipients that the computer is not a loaner.

"They say, 'When do we need to return it?' and I say, 'No, no, it's yours to keep,'" she said.

While the computers are provided free by the district, acquiring Internet service is left to the families, Anaya said.

'Family learning center'

Cannady said the old machines aren't given additional memory and speed because they don't need to compete with their high-powered successors. But each gets its chassis cleaned, battery replaced and hard drive reformatted.

The technicians install Open Office and other software provided free to school districts.

"We don't want to spend any money on them, really," Cannady said. "They're salvage machines. If we have one that's giving us trouble, we go right on to the next one."

Cannady said he refurbished the first computer in September 2005, when a change in the state education code began allowing school districts to give old computers to students who don't have access to one at home. The code requires that preference be given to educationally disadvantaged students.

Previously, computers that were bought with tax money had to be sold at public auction when they were retired, Cannady said.

School board President Gloria Pena said she hopes that the gift computers are not only improving education for those students but also getting their parents involved. She said that in her travels around the state she has seen a couple of school districts in the program actively promoting the idea of parents sharing in the donated technology.

"It helps them learn so that they in turn can teach their children," she said. "It becomes a family learning center."