New Jersey School District’s Free Laptop Program Crashes And Burns

Chuck Ross Investigative Reporter
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An ambitious experiment to provide personal laptops to seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-grade students in Hoboken, N.J., paid for by federal stimulus funds, has gone down in flames, and now administrators are looking for a contractor to destroy the machines.

“We had the money to buy them, but maybe not the best implementation,” Hoboken School District superintendent Mark Toback told The Hechinger Report, saying that the program had become “unsustainable.”

Using federal stimulus money it received five years ago, the school district gave laptops to every student with hopes that doing so would improve educational outcomes in the impoverished school district.

But the program failed for a number of reasons; chief among them: kids will be kids.

Jerry Cracamo, a computer network engineer for the district, told The Hechinger Report that he had “half a dozen kids in a day, on a regular basis, bringing laptops down, going ‘my books fell on top of it, somebody sat on it, I dropped it.'”

“We bought laptops that had reinforced hard-shell cases so that we could try to offset some of the damage these kids were going to do,” said Cracamo. “I was pretty impressed with some of the damage they did anyway. Some of the laptops would come back to us completely destroyed.”

Besides wear and tear, the computers were marred by viruses, cracked screens, dead batteries, and theft. Cracamo spent much of his time filing police reports and testifying in court, he told The Hechinger Report.

And highly-motivated students would also flank software that had been installed to block pornography sites, gaming sites and Facebook.

“There is no more determined hacker, so to speak, than a 12-year-old who has a computer,” Cracamo said.

All of that pre-loaded software cut the computers’ processing speed, hindering classroom lesson plans teachers had crafted around the machines.

On top of that, students used the laptops as much to play games and surf the Web as they did to do their homework.

“We didn’t really do much on the computer,” Hoboken high school junior Michael Ranieri told The Hechinger Report. “So we kind of just did games to mess around when we had free time. I remember really big was Crazy Taxis that we used play. If we found solitaire on line, we used to play it.”

Repair costs and security software licensing fees also factored into the demise of the universal laptop program, said Superintendent Toback.

He also said that local residents were inundating the district’s wireless Internet network.

“So a lot of people were able to walk by the building and they would get wireless access,” Toback said. “Over a period of years, you had thousands of people. It bogged it down, it made it unusable.”

According to the report, Hoboken teachers will spend the summer documenting each machine. The district school board will then have to approve a plan to get rid of the computers. According to The Hechinger Report, the district will seek out bids from recycling companies in order to pay to recycle the laptops.

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