Programs that refurbish obsolete computers for students and schools who couldn’t otherwise afford them are catching on in communities from coast to coast.

The trend began with the vision of one thinker from California.

Almost a decade ago, California businessman John Detwiler got the idea for a program that helps businesses, prison inmates, and schools. Detwiler knew businesses had usable, but aging, computer equipment. He knew schools needed to increase their computer-to-student ratio. It occurred to him that prison inmates could be trained to upgrade donated business computers for use by schools, imparting a valuable skill to the inmates while benefiting business and education.

Everybody benefits

Since establishing the Detwiler Foundation in September 1991 with a grant from Pacific Telesis, Detwiler, his family members, and colleagues have developed projects in at least 21 states. As of last summer, more than 43,000 computers have been placed in schools through the work of the Detwiler Foundation and its partners.

It’s a partnership that benefits everyone involved, organizers say. The businesses receive favorable publicity. The inmates develop high-level skills. And students gain access to computers that prepare them for life in the information age.

“Schools have not been equipping kids for today’s world, much less tomorrow,” Detwiler says, “but by placing high-quality computers in class rooms, we help bridge the technology gap.”

Computers for education

Detwiler’s concept of refurbishment and rehabilitation has begun to spread to other groups. Kenneth Kovatch was working for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland when he heard about the Detwiler Foundation. He and a couple of friends, Hardey P. Funk and Guy Thellian, traveled to California, where they met Detwiler. They studied the operation while staying at a Benedictine monastery.

As a result of what they learned and with funds from the Gund and Cleveland foundations, Kovatch and his colleagues established their own program. In time, their project evolved into a government-supported agency known as Computers for Education of Ohio.

In Ohio, inmates at Trumbull Correctional Facility, Grafton Correctional Institute, and Lebanon Correctional Institute work at upgrading the computers. The Ohio Reformatory for Women handles all the paperwork and telemarketing.

Two richly endowed Cleveland-area independent schools–the Laurel School for Girls and Gilmour Academy–have been especially generous in donating old computers, Kovatch said. Their donations are earmarked for less-fortunate schools.

As a result of Computers for Education, approximately 317 schools–most needy inner-city schools–have received more than 4,000 computers, Kovatch said.

The computers aren’t free, Kovatch said. A school might have to pay $89 for a machine with a Pentium processor. Principal David Volosin, of Franklin D. Roosevelt Middle School in Cleveland, wasn’t troubled by the tariff. “The price was right,” Volosin told the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper.

Kovatch has no intention of stopping with Cleveland. The schools in Appalachia are drawing his focus now. Those schools need state-of-the-art technology, too, he says.

All the machines sold by Computers for Education of Ohio are internet-ready and backed by a one-year warranty, Kovatch said. He hopes to find and refurbish another 2,000 computers by 2000, he said.

For more information, call Computers for Education at (888) 642-9003.

Community activism in action

Low-income seventh- and eighth-graders in the 11,156-student Grant Joint Union High School District in suburban Sacramento, Calif., now have computers to take home and call their own, thanks to local donations and the commitment to a community activist.

Last spring, Don Julio Junior High School was about to turn down a donation of computers from a local business. The 286s and 386s were just too slow for classrooms, which already were outfitted with more powerful desktops. But Ambrose Maxon, the school’s campus monitor, volunteered to find homes for those machines. He gave the computers to students to take home and has since given away another two dozen.

Maxon, a longtime civil rights activist, was featured in the Jan. 8 issue of the Sacramento Bee for his volunteer project. In the weeks following the article, Maxon said, he received 400 more computers for students from local businesses and residents–many of them 486s and Pentiums.

More than half the students at Don Julio come from low-income families, said Gary Johnson, the school’s counselor.

A real difference

Johnson said the response to Maxon has been overwhelming. Although Don Julio has computers in every classroom and technology is a big focus for the school, teachers still saw a disparity between the work of students with computers at home and of those without.

Teachers are seeing a real difference in the students who received the computers to take home, Maxon said. “They were not good kids,” Maxon said bluntly. “One was on the verge of expulsion–but this did something.” The performance of that at-risk student has turned around, Maxon said. The student now acts as a mentor for others.

Maxon doesn’t have a background in technology, but he relies on his gift of gab to win computer donations. “I know how to talk,” he said. He leaves the maintenance and repair of the computers to school’s technology teacher and two assistants.

Maxon was part of the civil rights movements in the early 1960s, when he worked in Mississippi alongside Stokely Carmichael and campaigned for Julian Bond, the first black lawmaker elected in Georgia. He left Mississippi to join JobCorps, seeking an education.

At the time, he said, he was illiterate. He draws a parallel between himself as a young man and the students he sees today. Computer savvy is a new form of literacy, he said. “If you don’t have computer knowledge, you are unemployable.”

Getting better grades

“My thought was if I could put computers in seventh- or eighth-graders’ hands, [then] by the time they were in 12th grade, they would become literate,” Maxon said. “I wanted to give them five years to build that.”

Eighth-grader Chris Williams received one of Maxon’s refurbished computers and a printer. Williams, who was just shy of straight A’s last year and aspires to be a linguist or a diplomat, said the donation helped him “feel like a good student,” the Associated Press (AP) reported. “It helps me get better grades, because teachers like neater work,” he was quoted as saying.

Students who want to take home a computer are required to take four hours of computer training. In addition, the school will start offering after-school classes, so students who are interested can learn to dismantle and rebuild the computers.

The school’s computer instructor, Donald Werve, said having computers at home helps students reinforce what they learn in his class. But there are other benefits as well.

“It’s not just the kids. It’s the whole family that gets exposed to it. The kids end up teaching the parents,” Werve said.

The Detwiler Foundation

The Benedict Group (sponsors of Computers for Education of Ohio)

Grant Joint Union High School District