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Saluting graduates as they leave the safety of high school behind, President Obama held up a revitalized New England technical school on Wednesday as a model for the United States in an increasingly competitive global workforce.
At Worcester Technical High School, Obama praised students and teachers alike for giving more than just "lip service" to the idea of skills-based education. He said the graduates were finishing senior year knowing how to run a restaurant, fix a computer or manage a household — skills that he said would let them begin their careers right away.
"I want the entire nation to learn from Worcester Tech," the president said.
Sixteen years ago, the Worcester campus was so outdated it was nearly shut down. Obama praised the school's remarkable transformation into a school with a demographic and educational profile that makes it a model of achievement.
"If it can happen in Worcester, it can happen in any place," Obama said.
Obama has been putting a spotlight on his education policies this week, drawing attention to efforts to lower student debt. But he also has been eager to showcase programs that break from the traditional classroom format or that are designed to improve the nation's science and technology workforce.
The Worcester school stands as an example of a triumph against the odds.
Six out of 10 students at the high school are underprivileged and qualify for free or reduced meals; 2 out of 10 have special needs. Yet, two years ago it was one of five schools nationally to win an award for student growth in high poverty areas. Last year, it was one of the Education Department's 286 national blue ribbon schools. And this year, its principal was named the Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Obama reflected on his own struggle to overcome similar obstacles as a youngster growing up in Hawaii, adding that his family at times "had to scrape to get by." But ultimately, Obama said, the support of his teachers, family and community enabled him to finance a good education through grants and student loans.
"All of this happened because people saw in me something that I didn't always see in myself," Obama said during a commencement ceremony whose festive spirit wasn't dampened by rain that sent family members reaching for their umbrellas.
The school's rebirth came after this city halfway between Boston and Springfield decided, with the help of state and federal grants, to build a new, $90 million school that opened in 2006. The school has built relationships with businesses and universities, including a partnership with the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, that provide students with real-life experiences through internships and cooperative education jobs - an idea that Obama himself has promoted.
Following his address at the school, Obama was to attend a fundraiser for the campaign committee working to elect Democrats to the Senate.
Obama drew attention to the hands-on education methods and the private and academic relationships that have given its students experiences from robot-building to veterinary care.
"Remember that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, invested in our success - somebody invested in us," Obama told the 300 graduates, urging them to pay their communities back.
Yet even as he decried a culture of conflict, Obama still engaged in his own political tussle, chiding Republicans for defeating a Democratic student loan bill Wednesday.
"There are too many politicians in Washington who don't have the right priorities," he said. "We need to straighten them out. And maybe they forgot where they came from and who invested in them along the way."
This article was originally published on June 11, 2014.
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