Roberto Gutierrez, a junior at Madison Park Academy, sorts charging cables as he wires a Chromebook cart. Credit: Amir Aziz

Forty interns. Eighty-one schools. Six weeks. Thousands of laptops. 

This summer, a group of high schoolers spent their vacation visiting every campus in Oakland Unified School District to repair, refurbish, and take inventory of the district’s stockpile of Chromebooks in time for the start of the school year. The students are part of a new internship program that launched this year, with two goals: to offer students experience and exposure to computer repair and engineering, and lighten the load on the school district’s overburdened technology team.

OUSD’s Chromebooks have gotten more use over the past 16 months than perhaps ever before, with students using them daily for distance learning and many teachers also relying on the devices to conduct lessons from home. The district received thousands of new Chromebooks through the Oakland Undivided campaign, which launched in May 2020 to get computers and hotspots into the hands of every student who needed them, to keep. But the arrival of those devices was delayed because of supply chain issues, and schools had to rely on their own supply while they waited. For some students, that meant using a school-supplied laptop well into the 2020-2021 school year

Once those computers were returned to school, they needed to be repaired, updated, and organized so they’d be ready to use once students are back in classrooms.

“You’re talking about 80-plus schools, lots and lots of devices, and saying, ‘How do I put things together in a way that people have a good experience when they come back in the fall?’” said Susan Beltz, the district’s chief technology officer. “I’ve got limited staff. In a normal school year, this isn’t what staff spends their entire summer doing; they have other work that needs to be completed in the lead-up to back-to-school.”

The 40 student interns, who came from Fremont, Life Academy, Madison Park Academy, MetWest, McClymonds, Oakland, Oakland Tech, and Skyline high schools, were split into five groups and have spent the last six weeks visiting campuses across the city. They started by taking stock of how many devices are on each campus and comparing that with how many students are enrolled for the upcoming school year, then reporting any discrepancies to the district’s Technology Services department. Technology Services would then deliver the remaining number of Chromebooks to the school so that there will be enough for each student on campus.

One intern group recently spent a day at Madison Park primary school in East Oakland. Gathered in the school cafeteria, the nine high schoolers unboxed 170 new Chromebooks that had to be wired into special carts for transporting and charging multiple devices at once. Each laptop fits into a slot on one side of the cart, while batteries and cords line up on the opposite side. It’s a tedious job, and a few students wore headphones while they worked.

Yarelin Espinoza, a 15-year-old who attends the nearby Madison Park Academy 6-12 campus, applied for the internship after her school counselor suggested it.

“You don’t really see people of color or women in the computer field, so I wanted to join,” she said. “I wish more women would get into this work. Maybe the knowledge I gain here I can use somewhere else, like in a future career or a side job in computer repair.”

Students fix laptops for the Oakland Undivided program for OUSD students.
Yarelin Espinoza, a junior at Madison Park Academy, helps to wire a Chromebook cart. Credit: Amir Aziz

Of the nine students in Espinoza’s group, two are girls. The other is Ashley Sanchez, a sophomore enrolled in the engineering career pathway at Oakland High School. Like many of the other interns, Sanchez wants to pursue a career in the field. “I thought it would be a good skill to learn how to fix computers and how to strip them,” she said.

Intern Adeyinka Arimoro, a junior at Madison Park Academy, wants to be an entrepreneur.

“When I was little, I used to open up my toys, take them apart, and put them back together. I want to start a business, and this could be one of my options because I know how to do it,” he said.

The students’ other tasks include updating software and replacing broken laptop screens, keyboard keys, and batteries. If the devices can’t be fixed or are too old to update, they’ll be stripped of their usable parts and then set aside as electronic waste. 

Linh Nguyen, a senior computer technician for OUSD, has helped to train and supervise the interns during the summer. He said there are fewer than 10 computer technicians in the entire district, and taking on the tasks of repairing and updating all of the Chromebooks would have been impossible for them without help.

“Some are visiting their own schools to do this, and there’s a lot of pride in that,” he said. “These are kids that are going to be, in about a year or so, heading out to college, hopefully. We’re hoping that we’ll get more of these young folks to get into IT work.”

In total, the interns have repaired 3,353 Chromebooks, rewired 13,320 Chromebooks into 444 carts, sent 8,330 to be disposed of as electronic waste, and ordered 4,500 devices to be delivered to schools. The students each received a $3,000 stipend for completing the program. 

The internship, which was designed by Sam Berg, the district’s computer science coordinator, Colleen Calvano, OUSD’s executive director of technology services, and Rebecca Haskell, a consultant, ended last week but the program’s leaders have been brainstorming ways that the work could continue during the school year. The tricky part will be figuring out how student interns can continue to help fixing laptops at other campuses once the school year begins. 

“How do we, with the skills that students have, support people with their Oakland Undivided devices going forward? Can we create a drop-off zone, and then students can fix the Oakland Undivided stuff? We know that those devices are going to sustain some wear and tear as well,” Berg said. 

Roberto Gutierrez, another 11th grader at Madison Park Academy, estimates that he’s fixed more than 100 computers this summer, and takes pride in being able to do this work.

“Every computer you fix, or every cart you wire, will go to somebody that needs it.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.