Laptop program boots up



With speeches and laptop computer demonstrations, the $5.3 million Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative officially booted up yesterday with ceremonies in North Adams and Pittsfield .


Members of the initiative's steering committee joined students, school administrators, city officials, business leaders and members of the Berkshire County legislative delegation at the two ceremonies, which took place at Mass MoCA in North Adams in the morning and at Pittsfield 's Clock Tower Business Park in the afternoon.


The cross representation of the Berkshire community reflected the collaboration between the state Legislature, school officials and the private sector, which have all contributed funding for the three-year wireless learning initiative that is being used as a pilot program for the state.


Following the speeches, Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative steering committee Chairman Don Dubendorf handed out the first laptop computers to seventh-grade students in both cities. By the end of next week, every seventh-grade student and teacher in the Pittsfield and North Adams public schools, and the Catholic Schools of Pittsfield will have an Apple iBook G4 computer to use as an educational tool.


"This is a wonderful moment to take stock of what we are, what we're going to be, and what we're going to become," Dubendorf said.


The students who received laptops yesterday said they were happy because they were originally supposed to receive them in September.


"We've been waiting for a long time," said Conte seventh-grader Peter Dassatti. "It's been suspenseful throughout.


"I like it," Dassatti said, referring to his laptop. "It's crazy how much stuff you can do."


Former state Rep. Peter J. Larkin of Pittsfield , who was instrumental in bringing the initiative to the Berkshires when he was chairman of the House Committee on Education, the Arts and the Humanities, deflected the individual praise given to him by those in attendance by referring to the Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative in a group context.

"This is not about me," Larkin said, while speaking at the North Adams ceremony. "This is about we. This is a community-bonding exercise."


Laptop demonstrations featuring curriculum materials that the seventh-graders will use in school also took place at both venues.


A total of 711 students will receive laptops. That figure includes 510 students between Herberg and Reid middle schools in Pittsfield , 131 at Silvio O. Conte Middle School in North Adams and 70 at St. Mark School in Pittsfield .


The goal of the initiative is to help improve student achievement and to transform the way education is delivered to the middle school students in each city.

Incoming seventh-graders are scheduled to receive laptops in September. The seventh-graders currently receiving laptops will return them when they graduate from eighth grade. Those laptops will be given to incoming sixth-graders in September 2007.


The steering committee must raise additional funds to support the roll-outs over the next two years. Steering committee co-chairman Michael Supranowicz said at both ceremonies that the private sector has raised only $818,000 of the $1.6 million that it is expected to contribute. The Berkshire Wireless Learning Initiative has been three years in the planning stages.

Perri Petricca, the president of Petricca Industries of Pittsfield and co-chairman of the private sector's fundraising committee with Berkshire Bank CEO Michael Daly, said the committee has received contributions from several large corporations and now plans to concentrate its fundraising efforts on businesses that are "at the next level."


"There are still some good donors out there," Petricca said. "There are still a number of people that we've approached that we haven't heard from."


At the Pittsfield ceremony, Superintendent of Schools Katherine E. Darlington said plans call for the seventh-graders to use the laptops in a math and science curriculum.


"I think this will open doors for both teaching and learning," said Matthew Joseph, the technology director for Pittsfield 's middle schools. "I think that it's important that these aren't looked at as computer training or how to use the computer. Laptops are a tool that they can use to succeed."


Speaking at Mass MoCA, state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley and North Adams Mayor John Barrett III reflected on how far the city has come in the past 20 years. Bosley, a North Adams Democrat, said that when he was a member of the North Adams City Council in 1983, the city's public schools had textbooks that stated men will walk on the moon - an event that had taken place 14 years earlier.

"It's a great day for me to be here, especially in this building," Barrett said, referring to Mass MoCA, the former home of Sprague Electric, once the city's largest employer, which went out of business more than 20 years ago. "We've transformed ourselves into a creative economy. I don't even know what that means, but I know that we've reinvented our future."


Barrett, a former teacher, said that half of the 2,000 workers laid off in North Adams between 1984 and 1986 needed job training because they had never graduated from high school.

"Now we see that this technology is in the school system, and it gives kids an opportunity that I never had," Barrett said. "That's what it's all about.


Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto thanked the business community for contributing to the project, then told the seventh-graders in attendance that they now have a "special responsibility" toward making the program work.


"Every student in the commonwealth is looking at you, and you don't even know it," Ruberto said. "How's that for being ahead of the curve?"

Margaret "Peg" Downing, the director of the Catholic Schools of Pittsfield , thanked those involved in the initiative for including St. Mark School .

"It is a testimony to the inclusive approach that the Catholic Schools of Pittsfield are part of the community, too," she said.


Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at