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Veteran city educator Sal Canata to lead Leeds School

  • Sal Canata in his office at JFK Middle school Friday afternoon.
  • <br/>Sal Canata in his office at JFK Middle school Friday afternoon.

When school starts up, “my other plan is visibility,” said Canata, 45, who was announced Friday as the School Department’s pick for principal of Leeds. “I want the kids to think there are 10 of me.”

Colleagues at JFK Middle School, where Canata has been an administrator since 2005, and members of the Leeds search committee say that type of personal approach is what made him the top choice among 35 applicants and two finalists.

“Sal knows who every child is, he is visible in the classrooms and in the hallways and he actively attends to every member of the school community,” said Julie Spencer-Robinson, a sixth-grade teacher at JFK and a member of the Leeds search panel.

“I come from the technology world and when we find someone as amazing as Sal Canata, we hire them instantly,” said search panel member and Leeds parent Jason Mark, who is co-founder of Gravity Switch, a web design and development company in Northampton.

“Within minutes of meeting Sal it was clear that Leeds would be lucky to get him as a principal,” Mark said.

Pending site-visit interviews with JFK staff Wednesday, Canata will be offered a three-year contract for the principal’s job at Leeds beginning July 1, according to the School Department. He will replace Joseph Smith, who is resigning June 30 after two years in the position.

Canata will earn $87,000 as head of Leeds.

Canata, who lives in Holyoke, had been assistant principal at JFK since 2005, until his title was changed in September. His experience includes stints as assistant principal of Tri-County Schools in Easthampton and dean of students at Michael E. Smith School in South Hadley. He also taught special education in West Springfield schools.

In an interview Friday in his office at JFK, Canata said he is “totally psyched” to become principal of Leeds.

“I love working in Northampton,” he said. “It’s been the greatest professional experience of my life and I want to stay here.”

In assuming leadership of the elementary school, Canata said he wants to find ways to “not completely rock the boat, but be effective.

“I really believe in an elementary school with a small force at the top, the strength has to come from within,” he said. “I’ll be relying on everybody in the building and reaching out to kids, parents and community members.”

Among his first tasks will be hiring new special education staff at Leeds while also coping with budget cuts for the coming year, Canata said. In addition, he hopes to bring some of the school community-building ideas that have worked well at JFK to the elementary school, such as the Ones Club for students who model good behavior.

Canata’s years as an assistant principal have taught him to “think on his feet” and rely on his colleagues, he said.

As for what it takes to be an effective principal, “You have to set expectations early and be consistent,” he said. “I also try to create a welcoming and warm environment. You greet the kids when they come in every day and show an interest in who they are.”

JFK Principal Lesley Wilson — who will be hiring Canata’s replacement — said when word leaked out to students on Friday about his new position, the sixth-graders gave him a standing ovation during first lunch period.

“Sal has made a big impact here in his relationships with students,” Wilson said. “We’re definitely going to miss him.”

School Secretary Pauline Akers said she told Canata she was relieved to be retiring this summer so she won’t have to face life at JFK without him.

“But we’re all happy for him,” said Akers, who has been at the middle school for 21 years.

After learning Friday morning he’d been chosen, Canata said he closed his office door and called his family. His wife of 21 years, Carolyn, also works in education as a classroom aide in Holyoke. They have two children, Jessica, 16, and Nathan, 11.

“I think they’re happy for me,” Canata said. “My son’s first question when he heard I was being interviewed was, would there be a gym at Leeds?”

Canata’s hire wraps up three principal searches that had been under way in Northampton. He is the second to be chosen from within the district’s administrative ranks.

Last week, Bryan Lombardi, an associate pricipal at Northampton High School, was chosen to replace Nancy Athas, who is retiring as NHS principal in June.

Earlier this month, Sarah Madden, a school principal in North Adams, was named the new head of the R.K. Finn Ryan Road, starting in July. She will replace Margaret Riddle, who is retiring.

Northampton still faces a search for a new schools chief to replace Superintendent Brian Salzer, who is leaving the district in July to take a job overseas. That search will be handled by the New England School Development Council. As of Friday, a search committee had not been formed, according to School Committee Vice-Chair Edward Zuchowski.

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