The Name Says it All: Minnesota Computers for Schools

by Lauren Melcher


Minnesota Computers for SchoolsAcross Minnesota every year, hundreds of companies upgrade their computer hardware systems every 12-24 months.

Meanwhile, many public schools and learning centers offer our future workforce computer systems that are 8-10 years old.

Working to bridge the gap is Minnesota Computers for Schools (MCFS), a nonprofit that, through a partnership with the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Stillwater, has been refurbishing and reselling enterprise hardware to schools since 1997.

Then-governor Arne Carlson heard about a similar program in California, and brought the idea to Minnesota because of  is success in well-established technology and corporate communities.  He saw the valuable job training it provided for inmates and the ultimate impact within the classroom.

The organization has thrived thanks in part to the longtime support from the Minnesota High Tech Foundation (under whose umbrella MCFS worked for five years after losing its initial state funding in 2000). This partnership, as well as support from local organizations like The Travelers Foundation, allow MCFS to provide schools with a budget-friendly option for replacing computer labs and providing teachers and hospital-bound students with laptops and other technology.

MCFS doesn’t rely solely on foundation funding, though donor support and community funding is crucial to its growth. Their business model also relies on sales of equipment to schools and learning centers. The process starts when a company donates equipment (generally, large quantities of a single type of monitor, laptop or processor) to MCFS. Staff and inmates sort the donations at the Stillwater facility, then responsibly recycle equipment that cannot be refurbished. The remaining equipment is wiped using state-of-the-art security equipment and tuned up to match incoming orders from schools. Schools can customize their equipment orders to match existing hardware on campus, maximizing their investments and minimizing the hassles of running multiple systems at the same school. MCFS also offers warranties and maintenance services with its packages.

In the end, schools and learning centers find that they can purchase two or three refurbished systems through MCFS at the same price they would pay for one brand-new system. This adds up to significant cost-savings for educators and taxpayers, and cuts down on waste, since the equipment is still suitable for the schools’ needs even after its lifecycle at a corporation has ended.

Tamara Gillard, executive director of MCFS, points to over 60 donor companies for the success of the program over the last decade. “When we can count on regular, high-quality equipment donations from local companies, we can more effectively serve the needs of Minnesota schools,” she explains. “Those schools, in turn, can more effectively educate the next generation of workers.”

MCFS is also expanding its efforts to prepare Minnesota youth for technology careers, including outreach programs at after-school learning centers and innovative educational programs like Guadalupe Alternative Program (GAP).

Students at GAP, often 19- and 20-year olds returning to school for a diploma, learn about equipment recycling, computer hardware and networking through the partnership with MCFS. “We’ve just received funding for additional instructors so we can teach courses in refurbishing this spring,”she says.

“One student told us that the reason he came back to GAP was because he’s been excited about his technology courses, and is looking at technical schools as part of his graduation/transition plan.” Gillard says that’s exactly the type of story they want to hear as they advance their plans to provide Minnesota students with access to technology and the necessary skills for 21st century jobs.