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The Secret Formula at Worcester Technical High School

Saturday, March 24, 2012


The jewel on the top of Sky Line Drive, better known as Worcester Technical School has continued to receive award after award since opening in 2006. Two years ago they were selected by the MetLife Foundation and the National Association of Secondary School Principals as one of the Breakthrough Schools. In announcing the award, the MetLife Foundation-NASSP stated that Worcester Technical High School is one of just ten schools selected for this prestigious national honor in recognition of its best practices and outstanding student results.

The magnificence of this structure is matched by its equally impressive record of student performance. According to Principal Shelia Harrity, the school has reached the Annual Yearly Progress benchmarks for No Child Left Behind in English, Math and every subgroup five years in a row. “

In 2009, Worcester Technical High School was one of 15 public schools nationally recognized for outstanding student gains in MCAS by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. When you look at the MCAS scores at Worcester Technical High School (WTHS) you see a steady progress being attained. 

The last five years have shown dramatic improvement in all areas of the MCAS test. In 2007, 48% of students scored in advanced/proficient on the English MCAS and 46% scored advanced/proficient on the mathematics MCAS. Last year 70% of the eleventh grade students scored in the advanced or proficient categories in English Language Arts, and 70% scored in the same categories in math on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exams. Both these scores and graduation rates again exceeded both district and state results by significant margins.

The question remains what are they doing right? They do pay close attention to the testing data and have made curriculum changes such as lots of writing across the curriculum. They also have high expectations for their students and continual professional development of best practices but that is not the whole story. There is also a non-measurable factor that the school gets for students to “buy” into the concept of “I know that I can achieve”. That factor is most likely the impressive array of motivational speakers and techniques that Principal Shelia Harrity has used to encourage students to reach their full potential. For the past four years, she has brought in national motivational speakers to talk to their students two week before MCAS testing to encourage them in the concept of believing in one’s self.

Therefore, the question that I asked Principal Harriety, (a former star basketball player in college) “How did you come up with the idea of motivating your students for the MCAS test?” 

She replied, “I believe that motivation is important for student and staff success. When I was a basketball player at Providence College, I never ran onto the court without a pre-game talk from a coach who provided inspiration and motivation to win. Much of what we do at Worcester Tech draws on this lesson from the world of sports. For example, two weeks before students sit for the state exams, the entire student body and faculty take a field trip to The Hanover Theatre to hear a speaker who has overcome personal adversity address students about the importance of overcoming obstacles and reaching personal potential. Such events are the cornerstone of our school’s effort to address the needs of our students and the challenges that they face as residents of our city. The reforms that have been undertaken in our school give students the vehicle they need to take them to a successful life. This assembly program and our school’s general focus on the importance of student success provide them with the motivation.”

As a former principal and one who follows the positive trends taking place in our schools, I have attended all four events and have been most impressed with the quality of the speakers and the commitment of the school. The events took place at the Hanover Theater, who donated their facility with the cost for the speakers coming from an anonymous donor. The major expense for the school was the transportation of 1200 student to the theater.
First speaker was Elizabeth Murray, who had an Emmy-nominated movie based on her life entitled, “From Homeless to Harvard.” Prior to having the speaker come the student-body was shown the movie and teachers and students engaged in group discussions. When the day came for Ms. Murray to speak the excitement at the school was something to behold. 

Ms. Murray’s parents were cocaine addicts who spent most of the family’s money on feeding their habit. She explained to her audience that she and her sister were neglected and often lacked food and warm clothes. By the age of 15, Liz was homeless. Her mother died of AIDS and her father was on the streets. As she explained to the students, she vowed after her mother’s death t hat her life would be different. She was resilient and refused to end up like her mother and decide that the best way to avoid that fate was to go back to school. She excelled in her high school courses in an accelerated two-year program, won a highly competitive New York Times Scholarship for needy students, and gained acceptance to Harvard University. 

Her talk was outstanding and I left extremely impressed by her presentation and her achievement. Months after the talk there were follow-up activities and continual references to it throughout the school such as slogans in the corridor, writings by the students and just an over-all positive atmosphere. 

The next year, Principal Harriety brought in Dr. Ben Carson. An author of the book, Gifted Hands and also a movie about the book that was seen by the students prior to his speaking. The story about Dr. Carson was another account about a difficult beginning. His mother had dropped out of school in the third grade, was married at 13. When Ben was only eight, his parents divorced and Mrs. Carlson was left to raise Ben and his older brother Curtis on her own. She worked at two, sometimes three job at a time to provide for her boys.

Ben and his brother fell farther and farther behind in school. His classmates called him “dummy” and he developed a violent, uncontrollable temper. His mother was determined to turn her sons’ lives around. She limited the boys’ television watching and refused to let them outside to play until they had finished their homework each day. She also required them to read two library books a week and give her written reports on their reading even though with her own poor education, she could barely read what they had written.

Dr. Carson explained to the students that due to his reading at home he was able to identify rock samples his teacher had brought to class. “I was at that moment that I realized I wasn’t stupid,” he recalled later. His confidence in himself and the new found knowledge he had acquired within a year that put him at the top of his class.

In summary, the story of Ben Carson is what people dream about. He went from a life of destitution and underachievement to becoming a gifted surgeon dedicating his life to the service of others. Because of his work as a neurosurgeon, Ben Carson has become a lifesaving hero for thousands of people. For his efforts to improve the lives of America's youth, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor possible, on June 19, 2008 by Former President George W. Bush. Dr. Carson’s presentation was outstanding and the students responded by being involved in a number of motivational activities outside the classroom from pre-MCAS testing to graduation time.

Last year the speaker was Erin Gruwell, a most dynamic speaker with an outgoing personality, who had the students’ attention within three minutes. She spoke about her first day at Wilson High School in Long Beach, California for as a recent college graduate she landed her first job in Room 203, only to discover many of her students had been written off by the education system and deemed “unteachable.” Her students lived in a racially divided urban community; they were already hardened by first-hand exposure to gang violence, juvenile detention, and drugs.

By fostering an educational philosophy that valued and promoted diversity, she transformed her students’ lives. She encouraged them to rethink rigid beliefs about themselves and others, to reconsider daily decisions, and to rechart their futures. With Erin’s steadfast support, her students shattered stereotypes to become critical thinkers, aspiring college students, and citizens for change. They even dubbed themselves the “Freedom Writers” — in homage to civil rights activists “The Freedom Riders” — and published a book. 

While Erin has been credited with giving her students a “second chance,” she stated that it was she who changed the most during her tenure at Wilson High School. She decided to channel her classroom experiences toward a broader cause, and – today – her impact as a “teacher” extends well beyond Room 203.

This brings me to this year. As I sat in the balcony at the Hanover Theater I thought, could this year’s speaker live up to the last three speakers? Then out came Christopher Gardner, now an entrepreneur, author and philanthropist. His outgoing personality got the students attention. He is best known through the movie “The Pursuit of Happyness” with his life portrayed by actor Will Smith. The students, again as with other speakers, were shown the movie prior to coming to the theatre. In the 1980’s Mr. Gardner was homeless and he was the sole guardian of his toddler son. Mr. Gardner explained his story to the students and spoke about his belief in never giving up.

When a promised position suddenly fell through, he was left with no salary and no prospects. He began the long process of knocking on doors and seeking trainee jobs -- a long shot for a man with neither a college degree nor connections. In rapid succession, Gardner's wife abandoned both him and their 19-month-old son, and he was briefly jailed for outstanding parking violations that he couldn't afford to pay. Still, after his release from jail, with a son, but no home, he refused to veer from his dream. He continued to interview at brokerage firms and finally, miraculously, was accepted into the training program at Dean Witter. This was an inspiring story of an individual going from rags to riches.

The audience was mesmerized by his story and as he stated to the students you never give up on yourself for you have to believe that you can and will succeed.

Each of the speakers over the past four years has imparted lessons of determination, compassion, and perseverance that have resonated with audiences all over the country. The effect of these presentations has been to galvanize student motivation to succeeding in school and making the most out of their lives. I believe that Principal Harrity’s focus on motivation is the “x-factor” in the continuing success of Worcester Technical School. I look forward to attending next year’s event and know with certainty that the students of Worcester Technical School are prepared intellectually and psychologically to succeed at this year’s MCAS.

John Monfredo is on the school committee in Worcester and retired as a principal. He also runs Worcester: the City that Reads. 


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