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Surplus Computers: Are They a Godsend -- or Trash?

Technology in the Classroom CenterDid you know there are programs -- both local and national -- that offer schools free surplus computer equipment? Today, Education World writer Glori Chaika asks teachers who have participated in some of those programs to discuss the advantages -- and disadvantages -- of using surplus computer equipment in their schools.

Librarian/technology teacher Melanie Natal-Lewis was so anxious to expand her computer library lab that she scoured Goodwill centers for old computers and printers. She hauled them back to Bonne Ecole Elementary School, in Slidell, Louisiana, in her sub-compact car, hooked up what she could, and cannibalized nonfunctioning equipment for parts.

"I created just about my entire library lab -- one checkout station, one librarian workstation, and seven search stations from donations or equipment I found," Natal-Lewis told Education World. "To accommodate the Accelerated Reader software, I connected the PCs to a Macintosh server, but the only computer purchased new was this server. Quite a system built from trash!"

Half a continent away, at P.S. 28 in New York City, technology coordinator Kimberlee Kundle decided to decline the free state and private-industry surplus computer equipment. It is offered through the New York-based Computer Recycling for Education and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) program.

Her first reaction was that the pieces of equipment were hand-me-downs, not top-quality products. In a posting to the Listserv, Kundle wondered why the state-owned computers were good enough for her students if they were no longer good enough for state workers.

Kundle teaches in a school with resources, however. The school plans to purchase 32 new PCs for the lab and 16 new computers for the library. Why look into outdated hardware? she asked. The equipment might be free, but CREATE may charge for shipping and handling, a fee that could be as much as one-half the equipment's monetary value. Once a school has this old equipment, someone has to upgrade it and maintain it, Kundle added.


"Be aware of the actual cost of using surplus machines," Joy Hogg, who teaches at St. Ann School, in Cadillac, Michigan, told Education World. "Older machines often don't have network or sound cards, much RAM, CD-ROM drives, or licensed, up-to-date versions of Windows. Even if the equipment itself is free, upgrading can be expensive."

At Midland Academy, in Midland, Michigan, technology coordinator Nancy Head found that her students grow impatient with the slow speed of older machines, which often come with unfamiliar software or operating systems. "However, our seventh graders enjoyed dissecting an older, non-working computer and opening its hard drive to see the platters and read/write heads," she told Education World. Older machines supplement minimal technology budgets and are great for teaching keyboarding or tinkering with PC repair.

"I know of several teachers from the Portland, Oregon, area who participate in a program called Students Recycling Used Technology (StRUT)," Head continued. Students earn a special certification that qualifies them to "troubleshoot and assemble computers -- installing StarOffice and the free Linux operating system -- to make machines for a minimal cost," said Head. "But this assumes an availability of teachers skilled in this area, and I do not believe that those teachers are easy to find."

When considering her meager technology budget, Jessie Goodwin contacted the National Cristina Foundation, an organization that brings technology to disabled or economically disadvantaged people. On a listserv, Goodwin said, "The program that I used would call and say 'We just got a new shipment in' and then give the specs for the machines. You could then take them or pass on them. I found I was able to get a few good machines and a lot of machines that could run the specific applications that we wanted them for."

Approximately seven low-end Pentium computers are in each room of Joy Hogg's small, tuition-free, parochial school. "Almost all are what I call 'undocumented aliens,' coming in the door as is, with no documentation or licensing and sometimes even with mystery passwords on the bios!" said Hogg.

"I have been using donated equipment for six years," Hogg told Education World, "and I have created a network around our small town in order to receive these gifts. Word has gotten around that St. Ann School will utilize donated tech stuff, and people even leave me hard drives at the local coffee shop I frequent!

"Recently I got 17 used 486s," Hogg continued. "They all had at least 16 megs of standard RAM, plus fans and overdrive chips. We stripped the RAM and parts and immediately upgraded some of our operating machines to at least 32 megs RAM. One man adopted our school and shows up almost once a week to tweak things. Every so often he does 'triage' on whatever has walked in the door lately.

"When my volunteers and I walk in to the classroom to work on the computers, the students and teachers thank us," added Hogg. "They understand how fortunate they are to have the equipment and how much work goes into the computers before they land in the classroom."


The ingenuity of teachers and the largesse of a few organizations can propel our nation's schools only so far. More involvement is necessary. Nationally, the student-to-computer ratio is still only 11 to 1 and widens to 31 to 1 in many school districts. If more organizations donated surplus computer equipment to schools, the United States could reduce that ratio significantly. If organizations donated just 10 percent of the computers taken out of service each year, our schools would be able to lower the student-to-computer ratio from 11 to 1 to 5 to 1.

Using surplus computer equipment is not for everyone. For some, the repairs and upgrades outdated equipment needs are an annoyance or a drain on already-strained tech resources. For others, the equipment provides much-needed extra access, permitting schools to reach more kids. For teachers such as Joy Hogg and Melanie Natal-Lewis, surplus computers are a godsend.

If you are interested in receiving donated surplus computers or have some to donate, here's how you can get involved.


  • Operating in 34 states, the nonprofit Computers For Schools program refurbishes donated computers and equipment and supplies them to needy public, private, and parochial schools. "We have placed more than 100,000 PCs in our nation's schools in the last ten years, but we believe our schools will need 4 million per year over the next five years to satisfy their needs," Computers For Schools president Willie Cade told Education World. For applications -- or to make donations -- visit the Web site or call 800-939-6000. The organization accepts late-model Macintosh and IBM compatible computers of 75 MHz or faster and peripherals.
  • Through job shadowing and internships with more than 105 local area businesses, students enrolled in the Students Recycling Used Technology (StRUT) program learn to repair and refurbish donated computers and peripherals. They then turn the equipment over to local K-12 public schools. "As a result of the program, many StRUT students received A+ and/or Cisco Certification in networking during the past school year," StRUT Executive Director Greg Sampson told Education World. Currently operating in Arizona, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, and Washington state, this program accepts computers, peripherals, and even computer tables! Interested parties can call toll-free 888-990-7500 or contact staff on-line.
  • Since 1996, the Computer Recycling for Education and Technology Enhancement (CREATE) program has provided New York public schools, the Division for Youth, and public libraries with free surplus computer equipment. To apply for CREATE surplus computers, complete an application and written narrative.
  • The 16-year-old National Cristina Foundation has partner organizations all across the United States and throughout the world. The foundation accepts 486 computers and Macs that are in working condition and not older than ten years. Surplus equipment goes directly to recipients. To better facilitate the exchange, the foundation places donated equipment in close proximity to the donating organization. When contacted, schools may accept or reject a donation, dependent upon space availability and the ability to upgrade the equipment. Primarily an organization to aid disabled or economically disadvantaged people, the National Cristina Foundation has provided computer equipment to schools in every state. For more information about the program, check out the Web site or call toll-free 1-800-CRISTINA.
  • Many naval commands participate in the Personal Excellence Partnership Loan and Surplus (PEP) program. This site does not contain information specifically on the computer loan program but does provide contact information, according to Cathy Willis, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command assistant public affairs officer. One PEP program initiative permits the Navy to donate or lend surplus personal computers and other education-related equipment to youth organizations and public, private, and parochial K-12 grade schools worldwide. For more information, e-mail [email protected] or call 901-874-4270.
  • The U.S. Senate Computers For Learning program refurbishes and distributes surplus computers and peripherals to schools across the country. Loaded with various software programs, Computers for Learning machines come ready for word processing, vocabulary drills, and other applications. Now completing its tenth year, the non-profit program has placed more than 80,000 refurbished computers in thousands of U.S. public and non-profit, private pre K through 12 schools throughout the country. The Defense Department transferred more than 57,000 excess computers and peripherals with an original acquisition value of $62 million to our nation's schools. In the last three years, one site in Washington state donated computer equipment worth more than $5.3 million. Apply through the Web site.


Glori Chaika
Education World®
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