Extreme Makeover: Computer Edition


Computer refurbishers are equipping cash-strapped schools with used hardware made good as new—or even better.

It’s the golden rule of economizing: Those who can, buy; those who can’t, refurbish. What’s common practice with living rooms and automobile interiors has proven to be good enough for computers. In the effort to acquire enough multimedia-capable, network-ready computers to provide meaningful technology access for all students, districts are turning to authorized refurbishers to equip their schools.

A Computer for Every Student?

Despite their growing popularity— particularly in urban settings— mesh networks aren't for everyone. Mesh routers can cost $2,000 or more, quite expensive compared to traditional wireless access points ($400 or less).
  • 13,800: Number of schools and nonprofit organizations currently registered with the federal government to receive refurbished computers
  • 11.5 million: Number of students using refurbished computers
  • 35: Percentage of those students who are from low-income families
  • 9-to-1: Average student-to-computer ratio of participating schools
  • 1 million: Number of additional computers needed to bring that ratio down to 5-to-1

Refurbishers take the guesswork out of deploying used computers in schools. They screen donated equipment, select computers and peripherals that meet appropriate technical requirements, and put the equipment through a meticulous process to ensure that it arrives in schools ready to be plugged into the network. Demand for refurbished systems is strong and growing. Roughly 13,800 schools and nonprofit organizations representing 11.5 million students are currently registered with the federal government to receive refurbished computers. The participating schools have an average ratio of nine students to one computer; they would need nearly 1 million more computers just to achieve a ratio of five students for every one computer.

Nearly all districts must deal with a shortage of computers, but the dearth can be especially acute in urban and rural areas. With relatively low funding per pupil, such districts are most likely to serve students who don’t have home access to technology. Of the 11.5 million students who receive refurbished computers, 35 percent are from low-income families. The most recent data show that access to Internet-connected instructional computers still lags significantly in schools with mostly low-income or minority student populations.

‘The Right Tool for the Right Job’

The School District of Philadelphia (PA) recently became the first large district to issue a formal request for proposals to supply refurbished computers on a systemwide basis. District officials see refurbished computers as an integral part of their strategy to deploy a technology-based curriculum and support for instruction. In September 2005, the district awarded a contract to Computers for Schools (CFS; www.pcsforschools.org), a nonprofit organization with operations in Philadelphia and Chicago, to provide 3,000 refurbished units over three years.

According to Willie Cade, president and CEO of CFS, the contract will supply Philadelphia schools with reliable hardware for about one-third the cost of new equipment, without sacrificing any of the functionality schools need for most applications. The computers offer excellent price/performance value for common educational uses such as word processing, Internet research, and most educational software. In fact, CFS has a partnership with Scientific Learning (www.scilearn.com), a maker of reading-instruction software, to provide computers to schools using the company’s Fast ForWord products. “In other words,” Cade says, “refurbished computers provide Philadelphia with the right tool for the right job.”

CFS underscores the reliability of its refurbished equipment by providing a three-year warranty at no additional cost. Over the last five years, the nonprofit has placed 35,000 computers in schools and homes of low-income families. By keeping detailed records of service issues, CFS has found that, within the first year, just 8.75 percent of its computers and monitors need repairs. According to the August 2005 issue of PC Magazine, the comparable repair rate for new equipment is 12 percent.

In addition to providing dependable equipment at more affordable prices, computer refurbishers can help schools minimize the cost of supporting their rebuilt machines. When a school places an order, CFS fills the order with computers that are all the same make and model, and with monitors that are the same size and resolution. They also ship additional units, 5 percent of the total order, to serve as a “pre-shipped warranty” pool so that any service issues that do arise can be addressed onsite as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The Philadelphia contract was one of two firsts for Computers for Schools, which also became the first Microsoft Authorized Refurbisher (MAR; www.microsoft.com/mar) in 2003. MARs are licensed to install the Windows 2000 Professional operating system on refurbished computers that will be placed in schools and nonprofit organizations. The program is a partnership between Microsoft and TechSoup (www.techsoup.org), created to increase the number of computers available to schools and nonprofits by providing low-cost, legally licensed software appropriate for refurbished equipment.

Refurbishers supply schools with reliable hardware for about one-third the cost of new equipment, without sacrificing any of the functionality schools need for most applications.

A Satisfied Customer

You might say that Mary Cavey knows firsthand the benefits of secondhand computers. A veteran administrator in the Chicago Public School System (IL), she has witnessed the power of technology in the hands of the mostly low-income and minority students she has served throughout her career. Cavey was among the first principals in the system to place computers in every classroom. She has also helped low-income families purchase home computers for their children.

Eight years ago, Cavey enlisted Cade’s help in equipping her schools with computers, and a relationship was paved. “We’ve worked with her at three separate schools,” Cade says. “We’ve done everything from getting computers into her classrooms and labs to helping her students get computers in their homes. Hundreds of computers in the three different schools. In one case, the Chicago Police Department was re-outfitting itself, and we took computers that had been taken out of service from the police department, refurbished them, and put them into her school.”

Cavey’s experience with Cade is typical of the bond educators and refurbishers often develop out of a shared commitment to closing the digital divide. “Working with Willie Cade and his staff has been a heartwarming experience,” says Cavey. “Along with providing a quality product, everyone at CFS pulls together on behalf of the students and their families, which is why I believe our efforts have always been successful.”

How They Do It

Refurbishers go to great lengths to provide schools with high-quality machines. Refurbishing computer equipment is a careful and precise process. The first step is to completely and securely erase the hard drive so that none of the donor’s information remains. Then a technician installs Windows and all current service packs and security updates, and may also install other software such as productivity tools, antivirus, or spyware. After the installation is complete, diagnostic software is run to confirm the system configuration and performance. Finally, the technician manually conducts a 13-point quality assurance check before the unit is shipped to a school.
Although the main goal of refurbishing is to make technology more cost-effective for schools and nonprofits, there are important environmental benefits as well. Authorized refurbishers properly dispose of unusable equipment by demanufacturing it into commodities that are recyclable.

James Sweet is a Chicago-based freelance writer and education and technology researcher.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.