Mar 13 Written by: Janet Lundeen
March 13, 2012 at 10:27 am

“When students are actively involved in their education, they take ownership of their learning.” This concept is what Sheila Harrity, principal, and Mary O’Malley, assistant principal, of Worcester Technical High School (WTHS) in Worcester, Massachusetts, say is the key to ensuring its students achieve success in their postsecondary endeavors. They offered insight into WTHS’s focus on authentic learning to approximately 50 attendees as part of the School Showcase component of the 2012 conference of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) in Tampa, FL.

Worcester Technical High School has a commitment to providing college credit-earning course opportunities. The school is continuously expanding its Advanced Placement (AP) course offerings, focusing specifically on classes needed to succeed in careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. As a part of its participation in the Massachusetts Math + Science Initiative (MMSI), AP teachers receive targeted professional development from The College Board, and both teachers and students are eligible for financial incentives for achieving passing scores on AP exams. In addition, instructors from a local community college provide instruction in college-level courses to qualifying high school students alongside their college counterparts. To ensure that students maintain the credits they earn while at WTHS, the school has articulation agreements with 12 local institutions of higher education (IHEs), and indicated that additional partnerships are being continuously developed.

More noteworthy, however, are the thoughtful and intentional learning opportunities available to WTHS students outside the classroom. Housed within the school’s walls are, among other things, a 125-seat restaurant and cafe, a branch of the local credit union, an automotive department, and a full-service salon. Students begin learning skills related to these and other industries as part of entry-level assignments in ninth grade, and move into management positions later in their high school years. For instance, a future business major might start off in ninth grade shadowing the teller position at the credit union, working up to bank management responsibilities. Worcester Technical High School students also work alongside professionals in the greater Worcester community, installing hot water heaters or constructing LEEDS-certified buildings, for example. The leaders emphasized that these opportunities to interact with professionals allows the students to learn about the training they will need to pursue careers in these and many other fields.

Worcester Technical High School has even tied components of authentic learning to many of the nuts and bolts of its day-to-day operations. For instance, in lieu of an IT department, the school utilizes its telecommunications students to provide support for technology use in classrooms – an arrangement that not only helps to keep overhead costs for the school low, but provides the students authentic environments in which to practice the skills they are learning in their classes. In addition, WTHS partners with Tufts University to offer a veterinary hospital – staffed by a licensed veterinarian – to low-income families in the community, and also provide clinical experience for the school’s veterinary students. In further keeping with the school’s authentic learning approach, its construction students built the facility that houses the veterinary hospital.

As a result of all these activities, WTHS has achieved tremendous success since its opening in 2006. Despite a statewide graduation rate that hovers around 70 percent, over 95 percent of WTHS students complete their diplomas. In addition, 77 percent of 2011 graduates went on to pursue a two- or four-year degree, with another 20 percent going into either a job with a direct career trajectory or military service.

Guest Author: Janet Lundeen is a Research Analyst with the American Institutes for Research.  She received her masters degree in Education Policy, Organization, and Leadership from Stanford University, and dual bachelor degrees in Industrial Relations and Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  

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