Kerry visits local middle school



By Scott Stafford and Jenn Smith, Berkshire Eagle Staff

NORTH ADAMS - Stephanie Sacco, a 13-year-old student at Silvio O. Conte Middle School, was surprised when she got to school to learn that former presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry would be stopping by.

She was even more surprised when Kerry sat down next to her and let her give him a lesson on operating a software program that helps her learn fractions on her wireless Apple iBook.

During his daylong swing through Berkshire County yesterday, Kerry stopped at the middle school to hear more about the Berkshire Wireless Laptop Initiative, which provides laptops for learning to every middle school student in North Adams and Pittsfield. Later in the morning, he attended a portion of yesterday's meeting of the Berkshire Compact for Higher Education.

The senator arrived in the Conte Middle School library, and met some teachers, administrators and about a dozen students before he watched a video produced by faculty the day before using the laptops and iMovie software.

James Montepare, superintendent of North Adams schools, explained that the initiative, funded by grants and private donations, places laptop computers in the hands of "all the kids in Conte Middle School" and in the hands of all seventh- and eighth-graders in every Pittsfield middle school as well.

"Our grades are up, and we think the laptops are partially responsible for that," Montepare said.

He said the next effort is to move the initiative into the high school level, but the cost of $700 to $1,000 per child is a substantial obstacle.

"That funding should not be a show-stopper," Kerry said.

"It is for us," Montepare responded.

Kerry shared the superintendent's concern, saying that, if students finish high school with little computer knowledge, "it is nearly impossible to compete on a level playing field in college."

After his visit to the library, Kerry stopped into Sacco's math class, where he picked an empty seat next to Stephanie and began asking her about what she was working on.

He then visited the band class of music teacher Christopher Caproni. Eighth-grade student Max Quinn demonstrated his laptop's prowess by recording his trumpet rendition of "Au Claire de la Lune," then playing it back with the music evaluation on the screen.

"What a great tool," Kerry said. "I play the guitar a little bit - I've used tapes but never a computer."

As he was wrapping up his visit, Kerry said the school's use of laptops "is very exciting."

He noted that there have been a variety of efforts to get laptops into the educational system in various parts of the country, but he found it impressive that this was a "self-started initiative, and that makes the effort more impressive."

He said he would like to see students be given a tax credit of up to $4,000 a year for tuition and to see the federal administration address what he calls a national "mortgage foreclosure crisis" to prevent families from losing their hopes of a higher education along with their homes.