By Edith Morgan
What do Mechanics Hall, Union Station, Green Hill Park, and Worcester’s Vocational Technical High School have in common? All involved over ten years of unrelenting effort on the part of citizens to save them from ruin. Mechanics Hall is now one of the foremost performance venues in America, saved from years of neglect and misuse ; Union Station, a falling down ruin in the 1970’s, is now a functioning and shining hub; and Green Hill Park, after decades of being dumped on and neglected, is now the city’s crown jewel, as the Green family envisaged when they made it over to Worcester in 1905. And so it was with our newest High School, Worcester Technical.
When I moved to Worcester in 1967,” vocational education“ was the province of the city council, who administered the vocational school down by the armory. It seemed to be a dumping ground for (mainly boys, as Fanning trade catered to girls, I believe) . While many dedicated shop teachers in fact tried to teach a trade to their students, the school under the tutelage of the city council was believed by many with whom I talked to be a haven of patronage.
Then , vocational education was taken over by the School Department. And like the other projects I mentioned, Worcester went from the bottom of the pile to the top – not just here in the city, but statewide and even nationally. I have come to the realization that this is how we accomplish big things here in Worcester . And so, after well over ten years of planning, hearings, gathering support, revisions, and getting funding, Worcester opened its top-of-the line Technical High School.
Visitors from everywhere come here to learn, admire, and praise the school, its facilities, its leadership, its accomplishments Just recently, Arne Duncan, the president’s Education Secretary, visited, along with other notables, to see for themselves what has been accomplished. And the school’s principal Sheila Harrity, has been recognized as the 2014 National Principal of the Year by MetLife/NASSP.
“The School That Works” opened in 2006, at 1 Skyline Drive, with a 400,000 square foot campus, situated on the site of the former city-owned Belmont Home, and 5 acres of what was part of Green Hill Park (for which the city gave the park 6 acres of land facing Belmont Street – a win-win all around). Originally to cost $72 million, delays and changes in the plan (due to the presence of vernal pools in the area, that required moving the footprint to preserve these pools) the building was completed at a cost of $90 million. Another win-win deal enabled Worcester to properly cap the old quarry which had long been used to dump construction materials and who knows what else, and create athletic fields for the school, while remaining part of the Park, and enabling city children to play soccer and other sports when not in use by the school – with funding provided by the state.
I urge all Worcesterites to become acquainted with this jewel in their midst: this school, which this year serves1,400 students, with opportunities to study and practice in 23 technical programs, if very welcoming to the public, and offers services as part of the education of their students: During the school year, you can get an excellent lunch, between 10:30 and noon at the beautiful “Skyline Bistro”, where I have enjoyed meals with friends, enjoying the wonderful view, and the professional service by students learning about restaurant management and food preparation with all the latest equipment – under the watchful eye of their teachers. If you just want coffee and a pastry, those are also available. If you need a little pampering, there is a beauty shop. Should your car also need some work, the school has an-up-to-date automotive and collision shop – and students who are studying graphics and printing will design things for the school s well as for outside (city) persons and organizations. And there is a real bank, with an ATM , and a place to spend your money aq the school’s gift shop , or at the school store, if you need sweatshirts or school supplies. It is almost like a city within a city, with all the amenities that students will need when they get out into the real world.
And lest you think that with all these career and vocational opportunities, that academics might be neglected, here are the amazing facts: In the five years of its operation, 77% of Worcester Tech students scored at the advanced/proficient level, while in Math. 74% did so . and 96% of this year’s 10th and 11th graders passed in Science. And they graduate in huge numbers: presently, the school has 95.4 graduation rate – with only a 1.1% drop-out rate.
And just so you think it is not all work and training, the schoo also offers many sports, including cross country, football, basketball, baseball, track, volleyball and others. The school mascot is the eagle.
The student body demographics is amazing also: of its1400 students, 51 are female, 49% male; 65% qualify for free or reduced lunches, and 21% are special needs students. Walk down the halls, and you will see that the student body reflects the ethnic backgrounds of the city’s residents.
All these things have not escaped the notice of national groups and organizations: in 2006 School Planning and Management Magazine rated Worcester Tech “The #1 Public Education Facility in the Nation”. In 2011, the school was selectees one of just five high schools in the nation as MetLife/NASSP Breakthrough School – and it was the only New England School selected, and the only vocational technical school in the country
As a retired educator, I have to greatly admire what is accomplished at this school: a tremendously well-equipped facility, excellent leadership, fantastic faculty, beautiful location, with a student body that achieves great things daily – in other words, what every school should be able to offer every child. And it pays off: In 2012, Worcester Tech graduates left the school with all academic requirements met, and with industry-recognized certificates. 77% went on to higher education, 18% went directly into the world of work, and 3% joined the military.
But the school is not resting on its well-deserved laurels: the drive to constant improvement is always on and in evidence everywhere. In a rapidly and constantly changing world, constant re-examination of curriculum, facilities, and student needs, are a must. And while that can at times be costly, not doing is far more expensive: Even the most expensive school does not cost per pupil what one year of incarceration costs: upward of $ 40,000 a year, not to mention the awful waste of lives.
On a personal note, I am very happy that this great facility is within our neighborhood, gracing the entrance to our greatest park, and providing so many opportunities to so many of our children. I realize that there is a waiting list, and while the school opened with 1,100 students and now has 1,400, we c not accommodate everyone who wants, or needs the opportunities it offers. But I am hopeful that sometime in the future, there will be place for all those of our young who want and deserve a top-notch education with a vocational technical twist.
Worcester offers many great choices at its 5 high schools, and there is a place for all. Thanks to the many who have worked diligently to create and support an excellent public school system, in these difficult times.