Altarik Wallace was lucky if he could play the educational game "Oregon Trail" on his aging computer.
Never mind using the computer — one that had a floppy disk drive — to research a topic for a school assignment.
Wallace had to rely on the computers at Desert View High School, where he's a freshman, or the computers at the public library to assist in his schoolwork.
He won't have to use the computer with the floppy disk drive any longer.
Wallace, 15, was one of the 505 freshmen in the Sunnyside Unified School District who received new HP laptops at a special celebration Thursday at Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus.
Desert View and Sunnyside High School freshmen received laptops through The Digital Advantage program, but laptops weren't just awarded to any freshman.
To earn a laptop, they had to demonstrate what the Sunnyside district calls the four A's: attendance, achievement, activity and attitude, during their first semester of high school.
Students had to have an attendance rate of 95 percent or higher, earn at least a 2.5 GPA, participate in at least one school-sponsored extracurricular activity and avoid out-of-school suspensions in order to acquire the laptops, which are theirs to keep.
"It has been an amazing experience knowing that students will have an opportunity to increase their academics with technology," Desert View Principal Dawn Maddock-Pea said. "It's really spectacular."
Students received a Golden Ticket by mail during winter break to inform them that they would be receiving laptops.
But Wallace didn't find out until Wednesday that he would get one.
Maddock-Pea personally called Wallace at home to give him the good news.
"I feel good," Wallace said about his new laptop.
His mother, Angela Wallace, was overjoyed and asked Maddock-Pea how many thank-you notes she'd need to write.
"I think it's a beautiful thing," she said. "So many people can't afford computers. It's going to really benefit my son. He's already a really good student and this is going to help him accelerate in school. I'm really thankful."
Wallace has promised to share the laptop with his two younger sisters.
Sunnyside freshman Julissa Duarte said receiving the computer will help her as she prepares for college, which she said she's been doing since the second grade.
She wants to study marine biology.
"Ever since I was small, I've always thought about my future," she said. "The laptop is just another step to get me there."
Duarte, 14, is a varsity cheerleader, plays violin in the school's mariachi band and dances folklorico at Sunnyside.
Nearly half of the freshmen — there's around 1,200 — attending high school in the Sunnyside district received a laptop Thursday night.
Sophomores, juniors and seniors will be eligible to earn laptops after the third quarter. They will have to satisfy the same requirements as the freshmen, but they must maintain a GPA of 3.5 or higher.
The laptop giveaway through The Digital Advantage program is part of a larger Sunnyside initiative called Project Graduation, which aims to increase the district's graduation rate and decrease the number of dropouts.
The district's graduation rate is around 60 percent, but Sunnyside Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo wants the graduation rate at 90 percent.
"I believe it's doable. This demonstrates that," he said of the program.
Freshmen are targeted because they tend to drop out at a higher rate than students in other grades and are more prone to developing terrible attendance patterns during their first year in high school, Isquierdo said.
"If you can invest in freshman year, the research shows you're going to double your graduation rate," he said. "We are doing just that. We're also sending our freshmen a message that we believe in them."
And the program already is producing results.
Sunnyside High School, 1725 E. Bilby Road, has seen a 40 percent drop in the number of freshmen who had two or more F's for the first quarter compared with last school year. Only 121 students received two or more F's compared with the 227 who received two or more during the first quarter in 2007.
Desert View, 4101 E. Valencia Road, saw a 25 percent drop, from 226 to 165.
To purchase computers for more than 500 students, the district began receiving pledges from businesses and other members of the community back in June.
As of Wednesday, the district has raised more than $1 million for the program.
Just this week, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe pledged more than $125,000 over four years to the Sunnyside district.
Donations of more than $100,000 also have been pledged by the Sunnyside Unified School District Foundation, the Thomas R. Brown Foundations, USA Funds and the Tohono O'odham Nation.
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