Worcester educator named national principal of the year

A school administrator who helped to transform a low-performing Worcester high school into a model of success was named national principal of the year Tuesday—a first for a Massachusetts principal.

Sheila Harrity, principal of Worcester Technical High School, was among three finalists for the honor. She received the award from the National Association of Secondary School Principals and MetLife at a surprise assembly at the school.

“I really view this as a community award,” Harrity said by telephone afterward. “No one person could do this all alone.”

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The Worcester native will be honored at a black-tie gala Sept. 20 in Washington, D.C., and will receive a $5,000 grant to improve learning at Worcester Tech.

Governor Deval Patrick, on hand Tuesday to celebrate the award, said Harrity was an inspiration to educators across the state and beyond.

“She understands that we have a stake in the next generation, and to leave this Commonwealth better than we found it, we must invest in the young minds that are our future,” Patrick said.

Harrity began her tenure at Worcester Tech in 2006, the year it opened a $90 million state-of-the-art facility. When she arrived, the school was one of the lowest performing in the state.

Now, the graduation rate has increased 17 percentage points, to nearly 97 percent.

When she arrived, only 27 percent of students achieved advanced or proficient scores on the English portion of the MCAS; only 35 percent of students recorded the same grades on the math section.

Under Harrity, these numbers jumped significantly: By 2012, 88 percent of Worcester Tech students achieved advanced or proficient scores in English and 78 percent of students achieved the scores in Math.

“When I got to Worcester Tech we had the infrastructure, but we didn’t have the academics to support it,” Harrity said.

As principal, Harrity implemented STEM courses, Advanced Placement courses in 2008, and focused on immersive learning.

Worcester Tech students now run a 125-seat restaurant, a salon and day spa, an automotive service center, a full-service bank, and a state-approved pre-school—all from the high school.

Students service 250 vehicles a month at the school’s garage, and more than 80 students have gone on to become bank tellers, Harrity said. Students have fully renovated eight triple-decker houses in Worcester that are now designated for rent-assisted housing.

The school also recently collaborated with Tufts University to launch Tufts at Tech, an animal clinic that offers affordable animal care to low-income families.

“The students are able to apply their academic knowledge to a technical setting, and they can see an authentic learning experience in that,” Harrity said. “Students can build a skill set for a career or for college.”

This is not the first recognition for Harrity. Worcester Tech earned the MetLife Foundation-NASSP Breakthrough School award in 2011, and Patrick appointed her to his college and career readiness task force.