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Career-Tech High School in Mass. Draws National Spotlight

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Worcester Technical High School in Massachusetts this week for a town-hall meeting, drawing attention to career-technical education. 

He came Wednesday morning at the invitation of Principal Sheila Harrity, who was recently honored by MetLife and National Association of Secondary School Principals as the 2014 Principal of the Year. In 2011, Worcester Tech was named a Breakthrough School by the NASSP and in 2013 it was declared a Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education.

"Secretary Duncan wants to hear how we have transformed the school," Harrity told me of the planned visit by phone earlier this week. "It's an opportunity to showcase the CTE model."

As a breakthrough school, NASSP applauded the school for achieving significant gains in Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) scores. For example, as 11th graders, 78 percent of the class of 2011 scored in the advanced/proficient categories in English/language arts and 70 percent in mathematics, compared with 26 percent and 34 percent three years earlier.

In naming Worcester Tech a Blue Ribbon School, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted its efforts to increase rigor in academic and technical programs, as well as allowing students to earn industry-recognized credentials and college credits. It highlighted innovative student projects, such as construction of LEED certified low-income housing, land maintenance and water testing of public parks, and the design and fabrication of more than 250 holiday wreaths that adorn downtown Worcester during the holidays.

The school has been around since 1910, but faced possible closure in 1998 because of its antiquated facilities. The community rallied, secured state and federal grants, and built a new $90 million, 400,000-square-foot school that opened in 2006, according to Harrity. The urban school has 1,400 students in grades 9-12. About two-thirds of them qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

"When it first opened, the school was like a fish bowl. Everyone wanted to come and see," said Harrity, who became principal in 2004. "There was an enormous amount of pressure. It was a significant investment and [the community] was expecting business wouldn't be as usual."

As an educator, Harrity said she believed in CTE, but realized the school and its programs needed to be improved. Instead of just being a training center that feeds graduates into the world of work, she said she wanted it to prepare students for the option of going straight into a job, or a two- or four-year college. The new focus was on "creating opportunity for students," she said.

This meant a significant culture change and an expansion of rigorous course offerings, she said. For starters, the number of honors classes was doubled. Advanced Placement classes were added. Now there are eight AP courses offered at Worcester Technical and 200 students sat for an AP exam last year, said Harrity.

The school has 24 technical programs—in areas such as health and human services, construction, and business—and students select their pathways by the second semester of 9th grade. The school partners with business, industry, and nearby colleges to give students job experiences through a full-service restaurant, day spa and salon, auto service center, and a veterinary clinic at the school.

The students divide their schedules, attending one week of academic classes, followed by a week of technical training. Literacy instruction has been expanded to all technical and academic areas.

Rather than offering advanced courses to a "selective club," Harrity says teachers encourages a broad range of students to sign up for AP classes. All students take the PSAT as sophomores and there is outreach to those who have demonstrated potential on the exam. Also, there is an "AP Night" for parents to help explain to them the benefits of taking college-level courses.

"We are working on changing the expectations for our school," said Harrity.

Every year, there is an accountability plan, benchmarks set for graduation, and professional development provided to teachers to help meet those goals.

Today, the four-year high school graduation rate is 95 percent at Worcester Techl—an increase of about 15 percentage points compared with eight years ago. About 83 percent of students go on to college and 13 percent directly into careers.

"If we can do it, anybody can," said Harrity. "Like any struggling urban school system, financial difficulties are always a problem. We looked to create partnerships and things that could be mutually beneficial for higher ed. and business. We made decisions that focused on what was best for students."

In honoring the school, NASSP noted that the culture shift has been recognized by the community and supported by parents and industry partners.

"The accomplishments have replaced the traditional image of a trade school with one that not only produces world-class tradespeople but also academic scholars," according to NASSP.

Duncan's visit comes at a time when the CTE community, such as the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education, has been pushing for more federal funding for its programs. The Obama administration's new budget calls for an overall increase of 2 percent for education programs, but would flat-line funding for the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education programs at $1.117 billion. Last fall, Harrity testified before a House Education & the Workforce Committee hearing on the reauthorization of the Perkins Act.

The National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education - See more at: http://www.careertech.org/news-events/news-releases.html/article/2014/03/04/nasdctec-releases-response-to-presidential-budget-urging-restoration-of-perkins-funding#sthash.eE7FklzU.dpufLast fall, Harrity testified about reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act before the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee.
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