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In the 1990s, one of the older career training high schools in the country teetered on the brink of shutdown. Student performance was low, books were reportedly in short supply, and an accreditation agency put the school on probation for its antiquated facilities.

Today, Worcester Technical High School in Massachusetts sees 95 percent of its students graduate in four years and outperforms other schools in its city on standardized tests, though not yet the state as a whole. Speaking at its 2014 commencement, President Obama told the graduates, “I want the nation to learn from Worcester Tech.”

Can failing schools be turned around?
Sheila Harrity oversaw the turnaround of Worcester Technical High School by supporting struggling students, increasing academic rigor, and making vocational courses interesting and relevant. Credit: Photo courtesy of Sheila Harrity

The Hechinger Report sat down with Sheila Harrity, Worcester’s principal from 2006 to 2014 and now superintendent of the Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, to learn how the turnaround happened.

Question: When you arrived at Worcester Tech in 2006, what was the situation?

Answer: In 2006 [a] brand new, $90 million facility was opening…. Right before they were ready to open, the principal decided he was going to retire. They called and said, ‘Would you like to open the brand new Worcester Technical High School?’ I thought it was an educator’s dream. A lot of people said to me, ‘You’re crazy because it’s the lowest-performing school, and [with] … the community watching, there’s going to be a tremendous amount of pressure, and it cannot be business as usual.’ I didn’t want business as usual.

I knew I needed to act immediately. It was a brand new facility. New principal. We changed the mascot. The roots were ripped. The old culture was, ‘We’re producing the next generation of workers directly out of high school.’ I knew that our society and business and industry were expecting more. We needed to produce lifelong learners.

Q: What did you do to boost academics?

A: I immediately doubled the number of honors courses. It didn’t cost anything. It’s whether you’re going to [offer] a lower-level course or a high-level course. We also incorporated AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination, a program that prepares students for college]. Not only were we increasing rigor, we were supporting the students to be successful in this rigorous environment.

82 percent of students at Worcester Technical High School now go directly to college

We need[ed] to introduce Advanced Placement because our … students [preparing for careers in health fields] weren’t getting into undergraduate pre-med programs because they didn’t have a rigorous enough transcript. So we put in AP Biology, the following year we put in AP Literature and language, the following year, AP Stats.

Advanced Placement in most schools is viewed as a very elite class… We were not going to set up barriers to prevent our students from taking these classes. We were very open and encouraging students to reach for the next level. You could come Saturday, plus you could take previous AP exams as practice tests. Then we would look over the materials with the students and identify their strengths and weaknesses.

AP courses are challenging. But they’re also preparing you for college. Students who were struggling did come to see me and said, ‘I need to drop out.’ And I said, ‘No. What else can we do to help support you? Trust us, when you complete this course you’re going to be so proud of yourself. You’re going to realize you are preparing yourself to be successful in college.’

Q: What supports students, particularly those who are struggling?

A: Caring teachers…. When a student goes into crisis, there’s a support net… Dropping out was never an option. We threw out the form [for a student to withdraw] because, if the form isn’t available, you can’t do it. The student would have to talk to me about it. Whatever their problem was, it was a temporary problem, and dropping out of school is making a permanent problem, so let’s work on your situation.

Q: What else brought your test scores up so dramatically?

A: Increased rigor. For instance, we started with 40 percent of our students getting [a score of] zero on open responses in our state exams. So we tailored our professional development for that year on open response. We gave teachers open responses and had them share samples of student work and how they graded them.… Then we had conversations about the scoring.

Some might say it’s teaching to the test. I’m saying we need to make sure we’re covering the curriculum and preparing our students to be successful. Part of being successful is to do well on state exams.

Related: Even vocational high schools are pushing kids to go to college

Q: What is the balance between preparing students for college and career?

A: If you went to the old school, you were being prepared to go directly into the world of work. In 2015, students graduating from Worcester Tech have options. If you choose to go directly into the world of work, you’ve got the skills and the industry-recognized credentials to earn a position upon graduation. Senior year you’re on the job working and potentially creating a full-time job for yourself. But at the same time guidance counselors and instructors are assisting the families with, ‘Here are additional opportunities.’ Eighty-two percent go directly to college.

Q: How did you structure the program?

A: [In the fall of freshman year], students [explore] all [approximately] 24 technical programs. From there, students select six technical programs that they’d like to investigate, then spend an entire week in each one. Students say this is the first time that they’ve been asked what they’d like to study and what they are interested in. That’s why there’s so much more buy-in and student engagement — because they feel like they’re being empowered.

Students are placed in their program second semester of their freshman year. The school year is 180 days: 90 academic, 90 technical.

Related: How to educate Americans for jobs? Ask the Germans, employers urge

Q: Can you talk a little about the industry role?

A: Way too often we educate in silos. K-12 doesn’t speak with the higher ed people and certainly not with business and industry, but in the vocational world we [do].

“Our [veterinary] students were working on stuffed animals… We reached out to Tufts University and said, ‘Would you like to partner?’ Our construction students built a veterinary clinic on campus. Tufts gave us a veterinary doctor free of charge. If you lived in the housing authority or qualified for food stamps and had an animal that needed medical attention, you could bring them to Worcester Tech.”

Worcester is a hotbed for biotech start-up companies. So we started our biotech program. University of Massachusetts Medical School gave us an $825,000 donation so we could buy new equipment and materials. And we reached out to start-up companies and asked for professionals to join us to help develop that curriculum.

Our [veterinary] students were working on stuffed animals. They don’t bark, they don’t bite, they don’t scratch. They don’t do those things that an animal would do. We reached out to Tufts University and said, ‘Would you like to partner?’ Our construction students built a veterinary clinic on campus. Tufts gave us a veterinary doctor free of charge. If you lived in the housing authority or qualified for food stamps and had an animal that needed medical attention, you could bring them to Worcester Tech. Three hundred to 350 animals every month are being seen at a significantly lower cost.

We built a full-service bank at our school where over 80 students have been trained as bank tellers. Now other banks are hiring our students. We sent the curriculum to our community college, and they’ve accepted the training program for three college credits. So now if a student wants to go directly into work, they’re trained as a bank teller or they can go on and earn a business degree.

We needed to be sure we were teaching our [construction] students about LEED certification. We partnered with an organization like Habitat for Humanity, [called] Matthew 25, that was buying abandoned three-deckers. Our construction students along with their instructors were renovating and developing abandoned three-deckers with LEED certified equipment, heating systems and solar panels. Then they became Section 8 housing for people in our community. That was an awesome project.

It’s all about establishing relationship and partnerships to create as many opportunities as possible.

Q: What advice would you have for anyone who wants to replicate Worcester Tech?

A: There are so many successful programs and schools out there, you don’t have to reinvent the model. But you need to embrace it and develop it in your own personal way based on your school and your business and industry needs. You need to create relationships that will provide those authentic learning experiences that truly help students become successful.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

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