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Virtual school principal logs in

Conn. native excited  to lead new chapter

Carl Tillona, hired as Greenfield's virtual school principal in January 2013, was named the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School's first executive director in October 2013. (Recorder/Paul Franz)

Carl Tillona, hired as Greenfield's virtual school principal in January 2013, was named the Greenfield Commonwealth Virtual School's first executive director in October 2013. (Recorder/Paul Franz) Purchase photo reprints »

GREENFIELD — From his desk at the Massachusetts Virtual Academy office on Davis Street, Carl Tillona looked out across the large room at four teachers, each of whom wore headphones and spread out at tables with laptops, communicating lesson plans virtually with students and parents.

“This is cool,” said Tillona, with a smile. It was his fifth day as principal of the Greenfield virtual school — a three-year-old public school that uses the Internet to teach students across Massachusetts.

The 45-year-old Connecticut native was hired last month as an employee of the Greenfield school system. In some ways, his responsibilities are quite standard: he supervises teachers, periodically communicates with parents and monitors student academic progress.

But then there is the not-so-normal. A law signed by Gov. Deval Patrick during Tillona’s first week on the job gave the state increased control over virtual schools — a decision that will have future implications for the school Tillona has been charged to lead.

Local school officials will decide the school’s fate over the next months, and Tillona is well aware of those conversations. But he’s more concerned with his daily job: ensuring quality education for his students.

“It’s a different model but the goals are the same ... to deliver a curriculum (so) that the student is college- or career-ready,” said Tillona.

Starting in the middle of the school year has forced Tillona to skip over drawn-out welcome pleasantries, which is fine with him.

“People don’t have time to sugarcoat anything,” he said. “I think it’s beneficial that I can cut through a lot of the courtesies and try to assess the program and its needs very quickly.”

Last week, Tillona had two faculty meetings, an in-person gathering with eight Greenfield teachers and a combined phone and Web conversation with seven employees of K12 — the online curriculum company that is contracted by Greenfield to manage the school’s academics.

His email inbox was full of messages from parents, welcoming him to the school, he said.

And Tillona said he has had candid and heartfelt conversations with Ryan Clepper, a K12 employee who works in the Greenfield office as the school’s head program administrator. Having a good relationship with the curriculum company is crucial to being able to move the school forward, he said.

The path to administrator

When Tillona was a child, he wanted to become three things: a teacher, a writer and a paleontologist. He would become two.

After earning two degrees — a bachelor’s in English and a master of fine arts in creative writing — at the University of Massachusetts, Tillona was hired as an English teacher at the Knox School, a private upper school in Long Island, N.Y.

After years as a teacher, a supervisor asked if anyone wanted to learn how a school works. Tillona jumped at the chance.

“I rolled up my sleeves and I learned about everything,” he said. “I learned about curriculum, food services, residential life. ... It was a great testing ground for me.”

Tillona then moved to Kansas to take on an assistant head of school job at the K-8 Topeka Collegiate School. There, he served as the school’s technology chair — helping to secure a laptop or tablet device for each teacher and install an interactive smart board in every classroom.

He also oversaw self-paced computer lessons for students who were at a higher level than the rest of the class.

“If they finished all the fifth-grade reading assignments, they moved on to sixth grade,” said Tillona. “We met the kids at their individual needs and serviced them at that.”

Superintendent Susan Hollins selected Tillona from a pool of about 20 applicants, because of the range of his experiences.

He knows how to supervise teachers and communicate with parents, she said. But he can also handle the enrollment process — something she called a unique feature of the virtual school, which takes in 97 percent of its 470 students via School Choice.

Hollins also plans to utilize Tillona’s passion for writing to improve the school’s communication and self-reporting. The two will work together on informational pieces about the virtual school, in an attempt to educate others, she said.

“There’s always a lot of challenges when you’re out in front, but I think it’s an exciting time,” said Hollins. “I think he’s the right person for the job.”

Excited to begin

Ever since he was hired, Tillona said he has noticed the role of technology everywhere he looks — even in an interaction between a mother and child in a car stopped at a traffic light.

Technology has great power in education, said Tillona, allowing a student to learn material at a time and place that works for him or her.

“This is not trying to replace teachers. ... This is just an alternative for those kids that for whatever reason can’t attend a public brick-and-mortar school,” said Tillona.

“This is a model and it’s exciting and it’s new and it’s revolutionary,” he said. “It’s not trying to replace anything, it’s trying to service the needs of those few kids.”

Tillona, the father of three sons in the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school system, said he is back in western Massachusetts for good. During his time at UMass, he enjoyed going out to fish. Today, he’s happy to report, “the fish are still here.”

He also keeps up with creative writing and keeps a blog of his latest poetry. His favorite form is the pantoum — a poem where two lines of a four-line stanza are repeated in the next stanza.

“I love language,” he said. “I try to put two words next to each other that I’ve never seen before.”

Tillona said he is eager to meet more of the virtual school’s students and families during seasonal outings the school holds. The next one is Friday, when the school will travel to the Museum of Science in Boston.

You can reach Chris Shores at:
cshores@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 264

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