President Obama hailed the extraordinary comeback story of Worcester Technical High School during the school's commencement address on Wednesday, telling the graduates, "I want the nation to learn from Worcester Tech."
"I'm here today because there is nothing ordinary about Worcester Tech or the Class of 2014," he said. "You have set yourselves apart. This high school has set itself apart."
The president commended the breadth of the Massachusetts high school's curricula, which emphasize hands-on job training and vocational apprenticeships in addition to traditional classroom instruction.
"Over the past four years, some of you have learned how to take apart an engine and put it back together again," Mr. Obama said. "Some of you have learned how to run a restaurant, or build a house, or fix a computer. And all of you are graduating today not just with a great education, but with the skills that will let you start your careers and skills that will make America stronger."
"Together, you're an example of what's possible when we stop just talking about giving young people opportunity, when we don't just give lip service to helping you compete in the global economy and we actually start doing it," the president added. "You've set a bar. More schools can do it across the country."
Sixteen years ago, far from the success story it is today, Worcester Technical was nearly closed. Community members decided it was worth saving, so they secured state and federal grants to help rebuild a new, $90 million facility that opened in 2006.
Today, despite the fact that six out of 10 of its students are considered underprivileged, and two in 10 have special needs, the school boasts an impressive string of accolades. It won an award for student growth in high-poverty areas in 2012, one of only five schools nationwide to do so. Last year, it was named one of the Education Department's "blue ribbon" schools.
And the school's principal, Dr. Sheila Harrity, was named "Principal of the Year" this year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She was honored at an event at the White House last month.
The school's success has been credited, in part, to its diverse curricula. The president has pushed schools to expose students to careers that do not require a four-year college education, urging high schools and community colleges to strengthen job-training programs in high-tech manufacturing and other areas.
On Wednesday, the president lauded Worcester Tech's emphasis on job-training programs and career preparation.
"Many of you are leaving here with more than a diploma," he told the graduates. "You're already certified as nursing assistants and EMTs and home health aides and preparing to become [information technology] associates. And with the credits that you've earned, some of you are already on your way to a college diploma."
He even nodded at the school's veterinary clinic.
"I could have brought Bo and Sunny here," he said, referring to the first family's dogs. "You guys would have taken care of them."
The speech on Wednesday was part of a broader effort in recent days to highlight the president's education policies. On Monday, he signed an executive order to expand a program that caps student loan payments according to income. And in his weekly address last Saturday, the president called on Congress to pass a bill from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., that would allow people to refinance their student loan debt at a lower rate.
Mr. Obama threw his weight behind Warren's proposal at the commencement address on Wednesday, condemning congressional Republicans for blocking the measure from advancing.
"That idea was defeated by Republicans in Congress, which was frustrating," the president said as the audience booed. "Don't boo, just remember to vote."
"When a bill to help you pay off your college doesn't pass, it's a disservice not only to your generation but to our history as a nation that strives to put quality education within the reach of every American," Mr. Obama explained. "So we're going to have to keep on putting pressure on Congress."