Out with the old? Not so fast

District schools like Emlen and Robeson are taking donated technology and making it work in classrooms.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Jan Deruiter still isn’t sure why he wandered into a general parent meeting at Lingelbach Elementary School near his home in Mount Airy two years ago.

But that chance visit could bring a major influx of donated computers to classrooms citywide, as well as changes to a District policy on using old technology.

Until recently, the District has discouraged the use of donated equipment, leaving many schools with aging hardware that neither students nor teachers could use.

Deruiter, who runs Mostly Web Inc., a web development company, was stunned to learn about the state of technology at Lingelbach. He wondered whether other District schools were experiencing the same thing.

“I was shocked at the disrepair of equipment, the lack of funding, the choices principals have to make,” he said. “It was disheartening.”

But Deruiter said that “it’s a fairly easy problem to solve without too much money.”

His solution was to design a way for schools to receive the thousands of used computers that had been donated, almost entirely by organizations, without burdening the District’s small information technology staff with servicing aging machines that are out of warranty, subject to frequent breakdowns, and often unable to handle the necessary software.

Working with the nonprofit Philadelphia Children’s Foundation (PCF) and the Mount Airy Schools Coalition, he has supervised the installation of more than 30 reconditioned desktop computers in classrooms at Emlen Elementary and provided 10 laptops for students to use at home.

“To see the faces of the kids who didn’t have a computer … was really exciting,” said Emlen principal Tammy Thomas.

Emlen principal Tammy Thomas (left) talks with Jan Deruiter, owner of Mostly Web Inc. Deruiter has supervised the installation of more than 30 reconditioned desktop computers at the elementary school. (Photo: Harvey Finkle)

The key has been PCF’s ability to scrub the hard drives and provide ongoing technical support rather than relying on the District for that service. The work that Deruiter has done at Emlen has served as a pilot that he hopes will expand to other schools in the District.

“Things appear to be working well. A couple of schools have reached out to Jan directly for donations of refurbished equipment, and we’re comfortable with expanding the pilot,” said Bob Westall, the District’s deputy chief information officer.

“We’re updating our technology donation policy for used, refurbished equipment, and it will be based directly upon the model that we’ve worked with Jan to develop. At that point, we’ll open this up to all schools in the District.”

Deruiter and PCF are planning to extend the pilot soon to J.S. Jenks Elementary School in Chestnut Hill.

The old vs. the new

Until now, the District has had serious misgivings about accepting older equipment.

“We’ve taken a hard line over the years,” Westall said.

In the struggle to maintain what the schools already have, Melanie Harris, chief information officer in the Office of Information Technology, said that she has cut administrative positions to maintain an IT field staff of seven to service 218 schools and 240 buildings.

“All the schools have a large percentage of older machines,” Harris said.

“Schools for the most part designate a teacher to be the technology teacher-leader. They do a lot of day-to-day patching of the computers. It’s those people who keep the fleet alive and stretch the length of those machines.”

E.M. Stanton Elementary in Southwest Center City is an example of how the old and the new technology coexist.

A new computer lab at the school was just equipped with 33 Mac desktops, purchased by the District with federal Title I funds. Computer teacher Holly Shaw-Hollis won $10,000 for the school in a contest sponsored by a nonprofit group called Code.org and used the money to buy 25 new Chromebooks for classrooms. And principal Stacey Burnley said that students have received equipment through an online Amazon.com wish list where they post requests, some of which are filled by members of the school community.

E.M Stanton’s computer lab (Photo: Charles Mostoller) But elsewhere in the K-8 school, Shaw-Hollis and the tech staff struggle with computers from 2009 that are out of warranty. When these break down, they have to cannibalize parts from machines that still work.

“It’s pretty impressive that most of them still work,” Burnley said.

Shaw-Hollis is also a technology teacher-leader. In addition to her teaching duties, she is a liaison to the District IT staff, performs minor maintenance, and instructs other teachers on everything from new software programs to remembering to plug in the machines.

She says the District’s tech staff has become more responsive to the schools.

“You used to call the help desk and no one would answer. This year and last year, it’s gotten a lot better,” she said. That’s partly because there is now a help desk app on the District portal.

Of course, schools prefer new equipment when possible. Shortly after Deruiter attended the Lingelbach meeting, an anonymous donor gave the school $100,000. Principal Marc Gosselin is using the money to purchase new technology.

Deruiter also helped raise $47,000 for a new computer lab at Emlen.

But the need for technology has been so desperate that schools have relied for years on using old equipment, with mixed success.

Andrew Saltz, technology teacher-leader at Paul Robeson High School, got the University of Pennsylvania to donate about 90 computers last year.

“They basically emptied their closets for us,” Saltz recalled.

Three students from Robeson High School help retrieve computers donated by Penn. (Photo: Payne Schroeder)

Saltz said that he largely does the refurbishing himself. The District is not involved.

“It takes a lot of time. It’s keeping everything together with spit and duct tape.”

Saltz said that his 11th-grade English classroom “looks awful” with a patchwork of wiring, “but it is what it is.”

MaryBeth Hertz, a computer teacher at Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber, said that when she worked as an IT coordinator for the Alliance for Progress Charter School about two years ago, she got a donation of about 30 desktops. That donation included “a box of tangled cords and mice” and an independent contractor to provide networking and support technology. Hertz said that she made the system last for a year until they got a grant for new computers.

“It was hours and hours of time, plus inventory and labeling, [so] you need to have people on the staff to deal with it – or don’t take” the equipment, Hertz said.

Abby Thaker, development director for the Mount Airy Schools Coalition, said a recent contribution of smartboards by the private Penn Charter School to Henry School did not work out.

“The installation of a smartboard is a much bigger deal than installation of a desktop,” she said. After consulting with Westall, Thaker said that the school declined the donation.

Making a start

The District has, however, taken steps to make donating goods and services easier, including technology.

“We have processes and procedures that can seem off-putting,” said Vicki Ellis, executive director of the District’s Office of Strategic Partnerships.

“We try to make it easier for the schools and donors.”

Last summer, the Office of Strategic Partnerships launched a new website, philaosp.weebly.com, to match schools and potential donors with all types of goods and services.

For computers, Deruiter says there is no shortage of potential donors. PCF now has about 7,500 used computers in a newly rented warehouse space in East Falls from donors including Health Partners, Comcast, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania.

For each classroom at Emlen, scrubbing the hard drives and refurbishing three computers cost about $300. That doesn’t count the labor time for ongoing maintenance.

PCF put the Linux operating system on each computer, “so they’re neither Mac nor Windows,” Deruiter said. “It’s a fairly bare-bones system, which makes the old equipment run faster. It’s pretty lean and mean,” allowing students to run such widely used programs as Lexia Learning and First in Math.

“Our problem is finding the schools and raising the money,” he said. “Some schools don’t have power in the classrooms, no Internet. They don’t have outlets in the room, or in the locations where we want. It’s ridiculous.”

He credits the District with alleviating some of the problems by establishing a Google education account for every child, “so they have access to email and Google Drive” through the cloud.

This lessens the load on aging servers that must be maintained in individual buildings. But students must have computers to use the accounts, and teachers and parents need to know that they’re available.

Giving students laptops presents other issues, Deruiter said. Many don’t have Internet access at home – he has connected several homes – and parents have to be sure the computers are used for school, not as “glorified Game Boys.”

Although Deruiter is optimistic that the pilot at Emlen can be a success at more schools, he said that the unmet need is so great that “even if it trickles down, it’s going to be a long time.”

This article will appear in the Notebook’s forthcoming print issue focusing on education technology, due out next week.