At pioneering high school, Obama plays role model in chief

President Obama spoke at Worcester Tech High School, calling it a model for how to prepare students for the global economy. But for many minority kids, Obama is the model.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama talks to class valedictorian Naomi Desilets (l.) prior to delivering the commencement address at Worcester Technical High School Wednesday in Worcester, Mass.

When President Obama spoke to the graduates of Worcester Technical High School Wednesday, he went into full cheerleader mode.

Some 60 percent of the school’s students are underprivileged and qualify for free or reduced meals, according to the Associated Press. But what the school has accomplished has made it a national model – going from one of the lowest performing schools in the state to one with some of the highest test scores.

“I want to encourage more schools to do what you are doing. You’ve set a standard. You’ve set a bar," the president said, commending principal Sheila Harrity, who was named 2014 National High School Principal of the Year for leading the turnaround. "More schools can do it across the country.”

Mr. Obama has pushed for high schools to incorporate practical learning opportunities and job-skills training programs into their curriculum. Many of the 300 seniors graduating from of Worcester Tech, a public school in Worcester, Mass., are ending their public school career with not just a high school diploma, but also with professional certificates and college credits earned through internship and cooperative education programs.

"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," he told the Worcester crowd. "I want the nation to learn from Worcester Tech."

It was classic Obama – exhorting and encouraging the students he talks to each year, often with a dash of, "I've been there, too, kid."

Indeed, a 2013 study suggests that Mr. Obama, as the first African-American president, has had special impact on students who relate to him because of his race or other aspects of his personal story.

Early in Obama's presidency, several researchers wondered if having Obama as president could help minority students counter negative stereotypes and related stress and affects on academic performance. To test the theory, they studied sixth-graders from middle- and lower-socioeconomic-class families in a Northeastern suburban middle school.

One week after the election in 2008, one group of students filled out a questionnaire related to the election. It was designed to prompt them to reflect on Obama and the significance of the first African-American president. A second group answered mundane questions about daily habits in school.

The researchers found that  African-American and Latino students who took the Obama questionnaire were significantly less likely than those in the second group to dwell on negative stereotypes of the intellectual abilities of their ethnic group, which can undermine school performance.

This lower "stereotype threat" – as the phenomenon is called – lasted the entire school year. Moreover, students of all racial backgrounds in the Obama group had higher grade point averages relative to their first-quarter GPAs.

When speaking to students, Obama often talks about his hard work during his school years, his reliance on financial aid, and the supportive people in his life that helped lead him to where he is today. By “consistently emphasizing the effort he exerted to overcome obstacles, Obama illustrates the opportunities and routes to success available to children of all backgrounds,” the researchers wrote.

"I was raised by a single mom with the help of my grandparents," Obama said Wednesday. "We didn’t have a lot of money growing up. At times, we struggled. When my mom was going to school at the same time as she was raising my sister and me, we had to scrape to get by."

But by the end of this speech, Obama had brought his message full circle.

"Every child in America, no matter what they look like, or where they grow up, what their last name is,... every single child should have the opportunities like you have had to go as far as your talents and hard work will take you,” he said. “I’ve seen you do it, so we know it’s possible.”

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