One student’s journey to the education summit

As the prin­cipal of Worcester Tech­nical High School and a doc­toral stu­dent in edu­ca­tion at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, Sheila Har­rity has trans­formed one of the state’s lowest per­forming schools into a national model of aca­d­emic success.

Between 2006 and 2010, for example, math and Eng­lish scores on the state-​​mandated MCAS exam soared while failure rates plum­meted well below the city­wide average. In 2011, the grad­u­a­tion rate reached 95 per­cent, and the MetLife Foun­da­tion and the National Asso­ci­a­tion of Sec­ondary School Prin­ci­pals named Worcester Tech one of the country’s top 10 “break­through schools,” citing its strong grad­u­a­tion rate and vastly improved test scores.

Har­rity high­lighted the turn­around at NBC News’ third annual Edu­ca­tion Nation summit at the New York Public Library last week. The three-​​day event brought together more than 300 of the country’s thought leaders in edu­ca­tion, gov­ern­ment, busi­ness, phil­an­thropy and media, including Arne Duncan, the U.S. Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion, and Con­doleeza Rice, the former U.S. Sec­re­tary of State.

On Tuesday after­noon, Har­rity par­tic­i­pated in a panel dis­cus­sion on turn­around schools with Dennis Van Roekel, pres­i­dent of the National Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, and Alberto Car­valho, the super­in­ten­dent of the Miami-​​Dade county public schools. NBC News chief edu­ca­tion cor­re­spon­dent Rehema Ellis mod­er­ated the event and reported on the suc­cess of Worcester Tech­nical High School for the Today show.

In the four-​​minute seg­ment, Ellis referred to Worcester Tech as a “school that’s redefining itself to meet stu­dents’ needs, turning some­thing old into some­thing new.”

Har­rity stressed the impor­tance of exposing stu­dents to course work that is ger­mane to their fields of interest. The Worcester Tech cur­riculum, for example, com­bines voca­tional edu­ca­tion in pro­grams from car­pentry to the culi­nary arts with advanced col­lege prepara­tory courses in sta­tis­tics to biotechnology.

“Stu­dents need to grad­uate high school with a better idea of what they would like to study in col­lege,” Har­rity explained in an inter­view after the panel dis­cus­sion. “If they are exposed to var­ious career choices, they will be able to narrow down their focus.”

For Har­rity, breaking the cycle of poverty begins with education.

“We can empower our stu­dents through edu­ca­tion and training to have better lives,” she said, adding that some 65 per­cent of her school’s 1,400 stu­dents qualify for the free or reduced-​​cost lunch pro­gram. “There’s nothing more worth­while than that.”

Har­rity, who takes courses through the Col­lege of Pro­fes­sional Studies, is cur­rently writing a case study dis­ser­ta­tion on the edu­ca­tional trans­for­ma­tion of Worcester Tech. For an edu­ca­tion entre­pre­neur­ship course, she wrote a pro­posal to incor­po­rate sci­ence, tech­nology, engi­neering and math into each of her school’s two-​​dozen tech­nical pro­grams. The school com­mittee recently voted to incor­po­rate her plan into the curriculum.

As part of the pro­gram, teachers will par­tic­i­pate in three– to six-​​week extern­ships with busi­nesses related to their fields. “We need to keep up with busi­ness and industry expec­ta­tions,” Har­rity said. “If we want to train the next gen­er­a­tion of stu­dents, we need to know what we are training them for.”