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New Northampton technology czar makes classroom calls 

  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, installs Google Chrome on a computer at JFK Middle School. On this day Rota was visiting JFK, Leeds School and Northampton High School.<br/>

    Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's Technology head, installs Google Chrome on a computer at JFK Middle School. On this day Rota was visiting JFK, Leeds School and Northampton High School.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota is the Northampton School Department's new director of innovative instruction and technology.

    Angelo Rota is the Northampton School Department's new director of innovative instruction and technology. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, installs Google Chrome on a computer at JFK Middle School. On this day Rota was visiting JFK, Leeds School and Northampton High School.<br/>

    Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's Technology head, installs Google Chrome on a computer at JFK Middle School. On this day Rota was visiting JFK, Leeds School and Northampton High School.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, right and Sal Canata, vice principal at JFK Middle School, left, view the Google Chrome, a program that Rota had just installed.<br/>

    Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's Technology head, right and Sal Canata, vice principal at JFK Middle School, left, view the Google Chrome, a program that Rota had just installed.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, visits JFK Middle School on his daily rounds of the city's schools.<br/>

    Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's Technology head, visits JFK Middle School on his daily rounds of the city's schools.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, installs a program on a computer at JFK Middle School.<br/>

    Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's Technology head, installs a program on a computer at JFK Middle School.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota,  Northampton's new director of Innovative Instruction and Technology, worked with Leeds School teacher Roxanne Nieman (left) and Andrea Marks, elementary school technology coordinator, last month on using the SketchUp computer design program to expand a class graham cracker house-building project.<br/>Photo courtesy of Roxanne Nieman.

    Angelo Rota, Northampton's new director of Innovative Instruction and Technology, worked with Leeds School teacher Roxanne Nieman (left) and Andrea Marks, elementary school technology coordinator, last month on using the SketchUp computer design program to expand a class graham cracker house-building project.
    Photo courtesy of Roxanne Nieman. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Patrick Serio, a fifth grader at Leeds School, works on a graham cracker house project last month that included use of the SketchUp three-dimensional computer program. Angelo Rota, head of Innovative Instruction and Technology, helped set up the web-based program for Serio's teacher, Roxanne Nieman.<br/>Photo courtesy of Roxanne Nieman.

    Patrick Serio, a fifth grader at Leeds School, works on a graham cracker house project last month that included use of the SketchUp three-dimensional computer program. Angelo Rota, head of Innovative Instruction and Technology, helped set up the web-based program for Serio's teacher, Roxanne Nieman.
    Photo courtesy of Roxanne Nieman. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, installs Google Chrome on a computer at JFK Middle School. On this day Rota was visiting JFK, Leeds School and Northampton High School.<br/>
  • Angelo Rota is the Northampton School Department's new director of innovative instruction and technology.
  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, installs Google Chrome on a computer at JFK Middle School. On this day Rota was visiting JFK, Leeds School and Northampton High School.<br/>
  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, right and Sal Canata, vice principal at JFK Middle School, left, view the Google Chrome, a program that Rota had just installed.<br/>
  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, visits JFK Middle School on his daily rounds of the city's schools.<br/>
  • Angelo Rota, Northampton School Department's  Technology head, installs a program on a computer at JFK Middle School.<br/>
  • Angelo Rota,  Northampton's new director of Innovative Instruction and Technology, worked with Leeds School teacher Roxanne Nieman (left) and Andrea Marks, elementary school technology coordinator, last month on using the SketchUp computer design program to expand a class graham cracker house-building project.<br/>Photo courtesy of Roxanne Nieman.
  • Patrick Serio, a fifth grader at Leeds School, works on a graham cracker house project last month that included use of the SketchUp three-dimensional computer program. Angelo Rota, head of Innovative Instruction and Technology, helped set up the web-based program for Serio's teacher, Roxanne Nieman.<br/>Photo courtesy of Roxanne Nieman.

— Early on a recent weekday morning, Angelo Rota arrives at JFK Middle School with a length of computer power cord coiled under his arm.

The cord is a techie talisman — something Rota carries with him whenever he goes out on a call.

As the city School Department’s new director of innovative instruction and technology, Rota has been answering an increasing number of calls since he came on board in August. On this particular morning, he’s headed to a seventh-grade art class at JFK to help teacher Herschel Levine solve a problem with a document camera.

Rota is heading up a newly reorganized technology department for the Northampton schools, one charged with linking IT more closely to classroom learning. His job description includes supervising curriculum design for technology, doing data analysis using standardized test scores and developing technology budgets and policy for the schools.

Rota and the four staff members he supervises face a challenge shared by many area school districts: keeping up with the rapid pace of online technology.

National studies show that many public schools are lagging behind the high-tech curve. More than a quarter of teachers surveyed last year by the California-based education nonprofit Project Tomorrow, for example, reported they lacked training or curriculum for using new technology in the classroom.

Rota’s approach is to take his cues from teachers, while making sure the technology they use is beneficial to student learning.

“It’s very important when some device comes in that you ask, ‘Where is it going to be used and how?’ and not just because people think it will make teaching easier,” he said.

On this particular morning, Rota is helping Levine with a high-resolution Web camera that allows teachers to display all manner of objects in real time on a screen or interactive white board. There are about five such document cameras at JFK and the school’s PTO is raising funds for more. This one, though, is a camera that Levine purchased himself for about $25 last year. Newer models run between $50 and $100, he says.

Levine’s students are making ceramic containers and he wants to find an easy way to track their progress on camera. After talking for a few minutes while the kids swirl around the room with their creations, he and Rota come up with a simple solution: a longer cable so the camera doesn’t have to stay in a fixed spot at the back of the classroom.

“The beauty of the document camera is that you don’t need to make overheads or copies,” Rota says as he scribbles a note to himself about the cable. “You can capture what’s going on in the classroom right then. It’s immediate, it’s green and it saves time and effort.”

Levine, who bought the camera so he could post pictures of student artwork online and create visual instructions for working with clay and other materials, says he was unable to do any of that until Rota answered his earlier help desk call.

“Angelo came in early and downloaded some software before school one day,” Levine says. “I had the equipment but I needed someone like him to be able to use it.”

Over the past few months, Rota has worked to make the classroom the focus of district technology efforts.

He has created a help desk system for quicker response times when teachers have problems with computers or Web connections. He launched the district-wide use of Google Apps for Education, a free Web-based email, calendar and document system. And he helped develop a $300,000 long-term technology improvement plan that envisions new servers, computer hardware and wireless Internet connections at all city schools.

Last week the City Council approved $100,000 of that amount, which means servers can be installed, but wireless connections, laptops and other classroom devices will have to wait.

Superintendent Brian Salzer said Rota’s long experience as a high school math teacher was a key reason he was hired after technology coordinator William Dornbusch left the Northampton schools last July. Dornbusch now works with the Franklin County Technical School in Turners Falls.

“Angelo was teaching as recently as June and he brings with him the perspective of a teacher using technology in the classroom,” Salzer said in an interview shortly after Rota started work in Northampton. “Teachers are going to feel a tremendous impact.”

Margaret Riddle, principal of the R.K. Finn Ryan Road School, said Rota’s approach has generated excitement about new technology and made the prospect of using it “far less overwhelming” for many teachers and administrators.

She described a presentation Rota gave at a school staff retreat before classes began in September, in which he talked about some of new Web-based education programs available free to teachers. Among them were Voice Thread, which allows students to do voice-overs, and Glogster, an online social network geared to middle schoolers where students can create interactive posters.

“What I took away from that was that technology is just another tool,” Riddle said. “Angelo’s perspective is really great. With him, it’s not about a race to get the newest technology. It’s about how to use it in the classroom.”

Rota’s interest in technology was sparked during his many years as a math teacher at Holyoke Catholic High School.

“I started bringing my students into the computer lab back in 1999 when nobody else was doing it,” said Rota, 60, who lives in Holyoke with his wife, Connie, a guidance counselor at Southwick-Tolland Regional High School.

In 2000, when Holyoke Catholic temporarily moved to the former St. Hyacinth’s Seminary campus in Granby, Rota helped set up servers and other technology systems there. “They had nothing — no phone, no cables or wiring,” he said. “We had to put everything in, so that’s really where I learned about networking.”

Since then, Rota — who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Westfield State College and a master of arts degree in French from the University of Massachusetts Amherst — has kept a foot in both the teaching and technology worlds.

His experience includes stints as a technology integration specialist for the Gateway Regional School District and most recently seven years as educational technology coordinator for the West Springfield schools. He taught math as an adjunct faculty member at Western New England University in Springfield and still teaches a math course at Holyoke Community College.

“I taught for so many years, I’ve just gotten into the habit,” Rota said with a smile.

In his view, Internet-based technology offers endless opportunities for improving classroom learning and inspiring students. That’s one reason Rota has been open to teachers bringing their own devices to class and using websites in their lessons.

While many city teachers are adept at using new communications tools, others need training and encouragement, Rota said.

“That’s why with the help desk, we’re not just going to go in and fix it,” he added. “We’ll show you how to fix it.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the recent wave of online technology is that it allows teachers to reach students with different learning styles and create more group projects, Rota said.

“Elementary teachers are the most inventive because they have to teach every subject,” he said. “There’s a whole shift away from the classroom hardware to begin incorporating Web-based technology. This is how we need to move forward.”

Roxanne Nieman, a fifth-grade teacher at Leeds School, said Rota helped her use SketchUp, a three-dimensional computer modeling program, when her students were designing graham cracker houses last month.

She said Rota and Andrea Marks, the district’s new elementary school technology coordinator, offered a classroom demonstration using the program and then students took it on — some of them becoming so practiced at SketchUp that they were able to complete their house projects on computers at home.

“There’s been a marked change in having Angelo come in,” said Nieman, a seven-year veteran at Leeds. “What’s different with him is the access. We may not have all the hardware we need, but we do have access to him. He’s excited about technology and very aware of my perspective.”

Nieman stressed that city teachers need ongoing training and more widespread availability of devices such as document cameras and SMART Boards.

“Here, we share an interactive SMART Board with a couple of grade levels,” she said. “So we had one, but now it’s in somebody else’s classroom.

“We need to have stability in access to websites rather than having the system go up or down,” Nieman added. “That plays havoc with our ability to teach.”

When it comes to resources for technology, Rota conceded that Northampton is still playing catch-up compared to some other districts. He said that in the Gateway schools, for example, every student has a laptop because parents agreed to pay $36 a month to cover the expense.

“We could do that here, but we need to think of who can afford to pay,” Rota said.

In the Brockton schools, he noted, the district makes laptops available overnight to students who don’t have computers at home. “In all the time they’ve done that they said they’ve never had an issue with the machines getting broken because the parents and kids are so happy to have them,” Rota said.

While the funds the City Council recently approved will allow Northampton schools to improve technology infrastructure, “that’s not the stuff that’s visible,” Rota said. “So people will say, ‘We’re paying all this money and what do we get for it?’ ”

In the coming months, he will be bringing Marks and another half-time technology coordinator together to help answer that question for the community. Rota also plans to continue outreach efforts Salzer has launched to encourage donations from local businesses for technology and other school needs.

Leeds School parent Jason Mark, owner of Gravity Switch Web design company in Northampton, said when he tried to donate used computer equipment to the schools in the past, he met with security concerns and other red tape.

He believes Rota’s classroom-based focus will help change that.

“I’ve heard he’s willing and excited to go into classrooms and help teachers solve problems,” said Mark, whose company recently donated $7,000 to Leeds School. “Instead of starting out with a list of what they can’t have, he starts out by asking how he can help them. That’s awesome and exactly as it should be.”

Rota said that expanding classroom technology is no longer a choice for public schools; it’s become a necessity.

“Kids are doing all of this on computers at home and then they come to school and there’s a chalkboard? That’s boring,” he said.

As for keeping up with the pace of new technology, “You can’t stay on top of things because it’s always changing and there’s always something new,” Rota said. “It’s a big jump — a whole new wave of creativity. Cultivating that creativity, I feel that’s my job.”

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