By Melissa Slager Herald Writer
Many households take their bits and bytes for granted.
There are home computers, tablets, smartphones — all considered run-of-the-mill technology, perhaps even essential by some families. Schools also are increasingly high-tech, with online homework portals, computerized whiteboards and e-books.
But gadgets aren’t a given for everyone.
A recent survey of Edmonds School District families found that 1 in 7 students had no home access to an Internet-connected computer for school work.
That sparked an idea.
After weeks of research and preparation, low-income families in the district will be able to apply for a lottery to get a free used computer from the school district. The new program is administered by the Edmonds Public Schools Foundation, which will send letters to eligible families later this month.
By early next year, roughly 300 students will have a computer at home to use for researching projects, typing assignments and getting online homework assignments from teachers.
It’s part of a greater effort to close the digital divide.
“The faster our society runs forward with technology, the greater the concern is for those families who are left behind,” Superintendent Nick Brossoit said.
The computers that will be given away — mostly laptops — are not new by any stretch. The district bought some of the devices upward of 10 years ago. They are now being deemed surplus, a legal process by which public school districts “retire” older equipment.
Typically, old computers are piled onto a pallet and sold off for parts, Brossoit said.
But with so many families lacking any computer at all, school leaders decided to try another route.
Adult students in the district’s VOICE (Vocational Opportunities In Community Experiences) program — for those with special needs transitioning to everyday life — were charged with cleaning the physical exteriors, wiping the hard drives and installing basic software.
“These would look very old compared to what most people have in their households, but there’s still some usable life in them,” Brossoit said.
Computers will only be given to families who meet certain low-income guidelines, and the computers can only be used for student learning, two key requirements the district came to after lengthy discussions with legal counsel and the state auditor’s office. There will be no technical support after the handoff, when the computers become the responsibility of their new owners.
There are similar programs to Edmonds’ elsewhere in the state.
A news story last month in The Dispatch, an Eatonville newspaper, described a program in which the Kent School District gives its surplused laptops to the Eatonville School District, which then distributes them to seventh-grade students to use through high school.
The state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction also distributes hundreds of computers to school districts every year through its Computers 4 Kids program. Surplused by state agencies, the computers are refurbished by inmates at a Spokane-based corrections center. The Granite Falls and Sultan school districts each have received more than 100 computers through the program.
Middle school students at 10th Street School in Marysville now use iPads instead of textbooks and sheet music, both at school and at home. They have to bring their own tablet computer or borrow one from the school district’s stock of booster-funded tablets.
But Edmonds district officials aren’t aware of a program like their own, one that grants surplused computers to families.
The Edmonds Public Schools Foundation is the key to making the program happen, both in volunteer time and to meet legal requirements. Meeting the technology needs of families has become a growing concern for the nonprofit group.
The foundation earlier began offering cheap Internet access to families who qualify for federally subsidized school meals. That program, Internet Essentials, offered through Comcast, includes Internet plans for $9.95 a month plus taxes.
Comcast also sells new laptops to eligible families for $150.
That’s a great price, said Deborah Anderson, executive director of the Edmonds Public Schools Foundation.
“But, still, there are families who can’t afford $150 for a laptop. What can we do to help bridge that divide?”
The lottery for old district computers will help fill some of the gaps, she said.
The foundation also hopes to solicit donations from the public and community groups to help other families purchase the low-cost computers through Comcast.
Technology is part of the fabric of schools these days, with special tax levies put on ballots regularly.
Edmonds is one of several public school districts to offer an online school, called the Edmonds eLearning program.
This summer, students were encouraged to try out a new online e-reading program, checking off nearly 22,000 books and stories. But administrators haven’t moved beyond the trial program yet because of concerns about the digital gap in homes.
Some teachers would prefer to ditch paper altogether. The state’s superintendent would like to go all-digital, as well.
By 2013, the Edmonds School District could assign email addresses to all students, under a proposal being considered by the school board. Most neighboring school districts already do this, staff reported.
“We’re really shifting more to an electronic age. It presents a barrier not having Internet, not having a computer, for students to complete their homework and turn it in,” Anderson said. “Our goal is to help our students and families be successful in school.”
Earlier in the year, the superintendent reminded teachers in an email to set realistic expectations for online homework, given that some students have no home computer access, district spokeswoman DJ Jakala said.
Jakala recalled a phone call she received from a mother whose computer died over summer. Her daughter stayed at the library until closing to finish a homework assignment, then ran into problems printing the paper and missed her deadline. “Since we started looking at ways to address this need, we did not realize how much need there was,” Jakala said.
There also are families stuck in the middle — those who miss qualifying for subsidized meals by a few dollars of income but still struggle to buy a computer.
“We’re hoping we can grow this into something,” Jakala said.
In the district’s phone survey in August, over 2,000 families expressed interest in getting a computer for their student to use at home for learning.
That could mean a lot of disappointed hopefuls after 300 names are drawn.
Brossoit hopes that the laptop giveaway will prove successful enough to repeat in the future.
“We’re taking a little step, but a real step,” he said.
The Edmonds Public Schools Foundation and the Edmonds School District will hold a lottery to give away roughly 300 surplused computers to low-income families in the district.
December: Letters and applications go out to eligible families
Early January: Deadline for applications and proof of financial need
Jan. 11: Lottery to be held
Jan. 18 and Feb. 22: Computers distributed
For more information about the surplus computer program — or to donate money that can be used to purchase new, low-cost laptop computers — call the Edmonds Public Schools Foundation at 425-431-7260. To donate online, go to www.edmondspsf.org.
In August, the Edmonds School District conducted a phone survey asking families whether they have a computer with Internet access available to their student for student learning.
86 percent: Yes
14 percent: No
2,024: Expressed an interest in getting a computer for student use
(4,812 of 13,261 families participated for a 36 percent response rate)