At a national conference of urban leaders and educators July 31, Dell Computer Corp. announced that it would donate 4,000 refurbished computer systems to 15 needy school districts nationwide as part of a campaign to keep kids in school and give them valuable technology skills.

The Round Rock, Texas, company’s announcement at the National Urban League Conference in Washington, D.C., committed Dell to a $10 million donation of staff time and used computers gleaned from lease buy-backs and Dell corporate offices.

Dell’s “Learn and Earn” program is based on a model that has proven successful in the Denver Public Schools, using technology training and the promise of a free, student-built computer to keep at-risk middle school students in school and focused on their grades. The company already has donated 500 computer systems to the Denver schools in support of the program.

Fifty-three percent of students in the Denver school system (K-12, enr. 70,000) are Hispanic, 63 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and more than 20 percent are classified as English-language learners. Only 20 percent of the district’s African-American students graduate from high school.

At a conference session led by educators, foundation leaders, and legislators, Jim Vanderslice, Dell’s president and chief operating officer, announced the launch of the Learn and Earn program and stated Dell’s intention to assist schools with implementing the program once they are selected.

Dell plans to guide school leaders in curriculum development, and the company is now developing a blueprint to help school districts and communities replicate the program.

The program, initiated by the Denver schools two years ago, gives used computers to students identified by their district as “highest–risk,” explained Bill Rodrigues, vice president of Dell’s education and health care sector.

“That means that the student may have absenteeism issues, grade problems, and/or disciplinary problems,” he said.

Criteria for establishing Dell Learn and Earn program locations include an urban population of students who are at risk of missing classes and not graduating, a district willing to establish and support the comprehensive training program, and local community partnerships.

“We are a committed partner, but it will require a commitment from the school districts and local partners to make the project work,” said Vanderslice.

The Denver schools developed the program to stem the increasing dropout rate of middle school-aged African-American and Hispanic students.

Through a project-based technology training program, students received 40 hours of classroom training on how to take apart and reassemble computers, load software, set up and run printers, upgrade hardware, diagnose and correct basic hardware problems, and use the internet.

Upon completion of the program, Denver students were given the computer they had worked on and upgraded, as well as one year of free internet access from the local internet service provider, Quest.

In order to remain in the program, an at-risk child must:

  • maintain a C average or show definite grade improvement;
  • maintain regular attendance at school, free of unexcused absences;
  • make up any missed training sessions; and
  • remain free of disciplinary problems and suspensions.

Participants say the program’s influence has been felt beyond the classroom setting.

The program “uses technology and the understanding of technology to give students a skill that they can use all the time–at school, at home, and in the work force,” said Rodrigues. “Populating those homes with computers with internet access allows the parents to engage with teachers and even take online classes. It opens up a world of opportunity for whole families, not just students.”

So far, Denver educators say the program has been a smash success, involving 650 students and 90 parents in the past two years.

“We’ve had students increase their [grade-point averages], we’ve seen their attendance increase, and we’ve seen discipline problems decrease in terms of referrals,” said Jenifer Federico, community program coordinator for the district.

Though no scientific study of the program has been initiated yet, “we found that students were more self-motivated to maintain the C average when they knew they’d get to keep the computers,” said Dell’s Rodrigues. “We also found that the students developed a natural mentoring system. Those who had computers at home or who knew more about computers helped those who did not.”

Though Dell has not created a formal application process yet, officials say they are open to any queries from interested schools located in urban settings.

“We are in the process of setting up a web site. Right now [we have] an eMail inbox where schools can send us information if they are interested in knowing more about the program,” said Rodrigues. That eMail address is