One man’s trash is another man’s treasure–and what is old, slow, and obsolete to some might be perfect for a school that intends only to use a computer to run integrated learning system software or teach basic word processing to elementary students.

Technology coordinators are divided on the merits of accepting second-hand machines. Some say the cost to a school in time and resources when an older computer breaks down just isn’t worth it. But with technology budgets stretched to their limits, many school districts are finding that donated or recycled equipment can help give more students access to computers in the classroom now, while they look for the resources to buy future machines.

According to education research firm Quality Education Data, there are 51 million public K-12 students in U.S. schools, but only 8.4 million computers. Most of those are concentrated in upper- or middle-class districts. Yet there are tens of millions of 386 and 486 computers that have been retired from use–and thousands of refurbishers to fix them.

“The fastest and most cost-effective way to increase computer access in schools is through a complementary approach that combines the purchase of new PCs with tapping into the multi-million unit pool of older computers” available from corporations or government agencies, said Clive Smith, chief executive officer of the Cambridge, Mass.-based New Deal Software.

It doesn’t have to be either-or, Smith explained. School districts can build their inventory of computers even more quickly by purchasing new machines for use in classrooms requiring more advanced applications, while also accepting older equipment from computer refurbishers for use in classrooms needing only basic applications.

Though most high schools are uninterested in second-hand computers, many middle, elementary, and preschools are, said Geraldine Russell, assistant director of the Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium, which manages Penn State’s Scrounge program.

But even some high schools are finding uses for old donated computers in the classroom, though not necessarily for computing. Instead, schools like Plymouth Meeting Friends School just outside of Philadelphia use donated machines for classes in which students take apart the computers for a better understanding of how they work.

Still, accepting donated equipment has its risks. If you use donated computers for classroom instruction, it could cost you valuable time and resources when a machine breaks down. If you’re thinking of accepting donated equipment, you should consider the following:

Look for computers that have been refurbished.

Some organizations give away machines in the same condition they received them, while others fix them first. For example, computers donated through the Detwiler Foundation are repaired, refurbished, and upgraded by inmates at correctional facilities. Some organizations, such as Detwiler, the East-West Foundation, and Computers 4 Kids, also equip the machines with licensed copies of New Deal’s School Suite software, which includes a Windows-like operating environment, word processor, spreadsheet, database, web browser, and a host of other applications that run on low-powered computers.

Ask about replacement, service, or warranty agreements.

Some groups offer safeguards to ensure you’re not stuck with inoperable equipment a few months later. The East-West Foundation, for example, includes a one-year warranty with its donated computers, though the organization charges a small fee for each system. Computers 4 Kids, meanwhile, is working to develop a network of local support groups for users of their donated equipment.

Find out if an organization will ship you the donated equipment.

The federal government’s Computers for Learning program ships all donations anywhere in the U.S., while other groups require you to pick up the machines yourself. If a remote organization doesn’t deliver, consider another source.

Here are some places to start your search:

Computers 4 Kids

This organization serves as a channel from the corporate sector to schools and community groups, allowing the donation of systems that have outlived their corporate purposes. The organization caters to technology-needy schools primarily in Connecticut, but will work with schools in other parts of the northeast if they are willing to pick up equipment at the organization’s Waterbury facility. Computers 4 Kids charges $125 per computer for fully refurbished systems with the following minimum specifications: 486 Intel processor, 8 megabytes of RAM, a 100 MB hard drive, color monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Apple computers are seldom available. The organization is currently working to develop a network of local support groups for users of donated equipment. Computers 4 Kids will replace any equipment that fails to function properly within the first 30 days.

http://www.c4k.org

(203) 591-1714

Computers for Education of Ohio

Sponsored by the Benedict Group, this program places computers in schools throughout the state of Ohio. The program is a collaborative effort of Ohio-based businesses, government agencies, and non-profit groups. Computers are donated by corporations and others to the Benedict Group and then sent to Ohio correctional facilities to be refurbished. Intel-class computers have a 386 processor or better, while Apple systems include the II series and newer. Schools pay a $99 “program participation fee” for each computer, which provides them with a one-year replacement warranty on the donated equipment.

http://www.benedict.org

(888) 642-9003

Computers for Learning

Through its Computers for Learning program, the federal government has placed hundreds of thousands of surplus computers in schools across the country on a needs-first basis. In fiscal year 1997, the Defense Department alone donated more than $62 million in computers and peripherals. Schools register and request equipment on the Computers for Learning web site, and federal agencies match their surplus equipment to schools with those needs. Most, but not all, of the available computers are IBM-compatible PCs rather than computers made by Apple. Most of the donated machines are 286s or 386s–but as the government continues to upgrade its computer systems, the number of surplus 486 and even Pentium computers will sharply increase. Computers and equipment are not refurbished by the government before being shipped to schools, nor are they covered by warranty.

http://www.computers.fed.gov

(202) 501-3846

Detwiler Foundation

This non-profit organization places corporate, government, and individually donated computers in schools at no charge through its Computers for Learning program. Launched in California, the program is being expanded nationally and now reaches 20 states. Computers are repaired, refurbished, and upgraded by inmates at correctional facilities. The program places IBM-compatible systems that are 486 or faster and Apple computers including the PowerMac, Performa, Centris, and Quadras lines. Computers for Learning favors schools in empowerment zones and enterprise communities.

http://www.detwiler.org

(800) 939-6000

East-West Foundation

This organization fosters the transfer of corporate-donated equipment to schools and other non-profits. The systems are older but are completely remanufactured by the East-West Foundation. Prices depend on the system. For example, a 486 IBM compatible system could range from $110-$200, plus low-cost optional accessories such fax/modems ($45) or CD-ROM drives, sound cards and speakers ($75). These prices include a one-year warranty from the foundation.

http://www.eastwest.org

(617) 261-6699

Gifts In Kind America

This organization links corporate givers with schools. Through Gifts In Kind, used but usable 486 computer systems are placed in schools at no charge. Applications are accepted year-round and are served in the order received and as computers become available in a school’s geographic area (a 120-mile radius). Schools should anticipate a 6-12 month waiting period for equipment. For a $25 fee, Gifts In Kind will add your school’s name to a geographical listing on its web site where corporations can link with you directly with donations of older equipment. Donations are not covered by warranty.

http://www.giftsinkind.org/rt.htm

(703) 836-2121

National Cristina Foundation

The National Cristina Foundation (NCF) places surplus and out-dated computers in schools across the country, giving special attention to students with disabilities, who are at-risk, or who are economically disadvantaged. The foundation works with individuals and corporations to develop strategies for donating their used equipment. Through the program, accepted schools become NCF grassroots partners and are eligible for equipment grants. Computers are free but are donated as is. Grants of equipment are made based on availability.

http://www.cristina.org

(800) 274-7846

Non-Profit Computing

This New York City-based organization caters primarily to home-town schools and other non-profits, but will work with groups outside New York if they provide for the transportation of equipment. The organization places used systems from individuals and corporations for free.

(212) 759-7688

Scrounge

This is a student-run, non-profit organization located on the campus of Penn State University. Companies and individuals donate used systems to Scrounge, which tests and refurbishes the equipment. Computers are then placed free of charge to rural and inner-city schools. Scrounge coordinators match donations to the needs described in a school’s application. Equipment can be very old and outdated, but still useful for parts or projects.

http://www.psu.edu.spacegrant

(814) 863-7688

Share the Technology

This organization links donors with schools and other non-profits and caters exclusively to schools in New Jersey and in the Delaware Valley. However, the organization does maintain a searchable national database which lists requests and donation offers. Computers filtered through Share the Technology are 486 or faster and are collected, repaired, and distributed free of charge.

http://www.libertynet.org/share

Other resources:

Parents, Educators & Publishers (PEP)’s national directory of computer recyclers

http://microweb.com/pepsite/Recycle/recycle_index.html