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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.”