Linux at Yorktown High School

by Justin Maurer

Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia is composed of about 1500 students in grades 9-12. More than 80 of these students are enrolled in a computer science course, and all of them use Linux.

Until the 1997-98 school year began, these courses were taught using proprietary software from Microsoft, Borland and other vendors. Since then, Linux has grown steadily within the computer science department and throughout the rest of the school.

Computers are in every classroom at the school. The variety of machines ranges from Apple Macintoshes used by the newspaper, yearbook and English classes, to x86-class machines, a Sun workstation, and a PowerMac clone used by the computer science classes. Yorktown is connected to the Internet via a T1 line to the county Education Center. Internally, the school is networked via 10baseT Ethernet, with multiple drops (Ethernet ports) available in every room.

Three separate computer science classes are offered: Computer Science, Advanced Placement Computer Science and Advanced Topics.

Computer Science (

Computer Science is taught by Jeff Elkner. This class uses Pentium-class machines, all running Linux Mandrake 6.1. Students are greeted with a graphical kdm login screen which allows them to click on their photo (taken with a digital camera at the beginning of the year) and enter their password to log in. Students may use any machine in the lab, because we have configured all the systems to use NIS and NFS. The machines are served by our shell server, named linus.

Until this year, students learned to program in C++ with the GNU C++ compiler (g++). This year, students begin with Python and move to C++ only after mastering the fundamentals of programming. This was partly inspired by the fact that Guido van Rossum, Python's creator, has agreed to visit the school and help these students as part of his Computer Programming for Everyone (CP4E) project.

Advanced Placement Computer Science


AP Computer Science is also taught by Jeff Elkner. Students continue to learn C++, as well as take AP C++ classes provided by the College Board. This has been problem-free, with one small exception. Though the College Board's AP classes are platform-independent, they are not free software. Former student Paul Morie ( and current student Jonah Cohen ( collaborated to write a free replacement called pclasses. This software is available under the GPL and can be downloaded from the school's web site.

Advanced Topics

Advanced Topics students have no set course of study. At the beginning of each quarter, they outline a set of goals and must meet them before the beginning of the next term. Students usually work in small groups to accomplish their projects.

One project that has been very successful is the Python Resource Kit ( The kit is a downloadable ISO image, as it is meant for redistribution, but the school often burns copies for first-year students so that they can take them home and install Python on their Windows machines.

Another project that has made much progress so far is the Open Book Project ( The project is an effort to create a freely redistributable textbook for computer science teachers. It is based on Allen Downey's How to Think Like a Computer Scientist book, and has been modified for Python and C++ instead of Java.


Because the county had difficulties in setting up an e-mail server to offer accounts to students and teachers, we have configured a mail server and given free e-mail accounts to students and teachers who have requested them. In addition to mail, Linux also powers the school's web server (

Another use of Linux at Yorktown is powering the Student Portfolio ( database. Over the summer, Lex Bereznhy collaborated with me to write a Python-based database that allows students to plan their schedules, showcase their work and communicate with their teachers.

Another one of the school's successful projects is PyTicket ( Teachers or anyone else in need of assistance can simply fill out a form and get a web-based “ticket”. Students check these tickets every morning, and are dispatched to help teachers with their computer problems.

Using Linux has saved the county tens of thousands of dollars in software licenses, provided students with an opportunity to learn Linux/UNIX basics, and has given the school an opportunity to contribute to the free software community.

Finally, this article would not be complete without mention of the school's newest project. By the time you read this, the inaugural meeting of the Yorktown High School Linux Users Group (YHSLUG, will have been held. Attendance of around 20 users is expected. Drop by if you are in the neighborhood!


Justin Maurer is the youngest hacker at Helix Code, Inc. He formerly wrote for Slashdot, and now sometimes contributes to He is also a Debian developer, and can be reached via e-mail at

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