High-speed Internet access, and computers to use it, have become as essential in education as textbooks. But many kids in Oakland don’t have access to high-speed connections at home, or sometimes even computers, which puts them at a huge disadvantage.

As school begins in Oakland, a man with a very kind heart, a giant corporation, the City, and the Oakland school district have joined forces to offer — and encourage kids to sign up for — free computers and six months of free Internet access. About three quarters of the 47,000 students in Oakland’s public and charter schools are eligible.

Meanwhile, as of this summer, most schools within the Oakland Unified School District now have WiFi for high-speed Internet access, which suggests that more lessons will include online facets.

If you’re a student and you happen to qualify for the federal school lunch program, you can go to East Bay Connects, or call (866) 460-7439 and sign up to receive a computer, some training, and Internet access at no cost for six months and at $10 a month afterward. Students can sign up between now and September 20.

“We know there are thousands of families here who don’t have Internet access at home,” said Mayor Jean Quan, announcing the program with the Oakland Technology Exchange, the school district, Comcast’s Internet Essentials and County Supervisor Keith Carson.

“Sometimes you see kids late at night sitting outside our libraries working on laptops or tablets because their families don’t have (Internet) service,” she said. Quan launched an effort three years ago to outfit the City’s libraries and most recreation centers with WiFi.

In this new back-to-school initiative, Oakland Technology Exchange (OTX), a nonprofit that for 20 years has supplied thousands of computers and training to Oakland kids by refurbishing donated surplus computers, has organized an offering of free computers with Comcast, East Bay Connects, the City and the school district.

This summer, Oakland Unified did a massive upgrade of school technology systems, installing 250 WiFi access points in 44 schools that did not previously have high-speed Internet access. The district reversed the lack high-speed access at most of its schools. Now they’re almost fully WiFi outfitted, and according to OUSD’s technology plan, the remaining spots will have high-speed by the end of this school year.

The $10 million technology upgrade was funded by state grants for Common Core implementation and by the local Measure J funding legislation passed by City voters to renovate schools. OUSD also purchased 10,000 Chromebook computers to supplement its stock of classroom and library desktops, so that all kids can work on computers and be able to check out Chromebooks to take home.

The story of OTX 

Bruce Buckelew founded OTX twenty years ago as a hobby during his so-called retirement, and since then has devoted his time to giving away 36,000 computers to kids, schools and community centers in Oakland. OTX has also trained 15,000 kids and their parents to use computers and access information on the Internet.

A former IBM engineer who runs OTX from a huge West Oakland warehouse filled with computers and parts, Buckelew has been an evangelist for closing the digital divide in Oakland in a sustainable way. The 36,000 computers his organization has given away were all surplus or slightly used computers donated by companies, government agencies and individuals. OTX volunteers — including all the students that take OTX classes — refurbish the computers, upload them with new software, and give them to kids who come to the community centers and schools. Some 20,000 computers have gone to Oakland public schools.

bruce

Since many companies replace their computer hardware every couple of years, OTX has reached out to be the recipient of the slightly-used stock, getting them from Clorox, the Oakland Army Base, and UC Berkeley.

In doing so, OTX has also diverted tons of metal, plastic and wires from landfills, and provided computers to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have them. You or your company can donate computers at OTX-WEST any Tuesday from 2:30 to 6 p.m. at its warehouse at 1680 14th Street in West Oakland or by contacting OTX.

About five years ago, Buckelew took on the task of getting kids connected to the Internet, realizing that without Internet, they could not join the economy in any meaningful way. He has been advocating for Comcast Essentials and steering kids through the process of signing up.

Last Tuesday, Buckelew, the Mayor, Oakland Unified Superintendent Antwan Wilson, Comcast executives, Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Keith Carson, and OTX interim executive director Charon Darris convened to exhort students to sign up.

Antwan Wilson, OUSD’s new superintendent, said students need computers and high-speed Internet access, not only to do assignments today, and to research and avail themselves of lessons that are now online, but also “to dream” to see what possibilities abound in the world for them.

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