Transformative chief leads voc-tech charge

Superintendent Sheila M. Harrity brings innovative career programs to her students
By: | Issue: October, 2015
September 28, 2015

When Sheila M. Harrity leads, she makes an impact.

Last fall, when she became superintendent-director of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School DistrictÑbetter known as Monty TechÑHarrity hit the ground running, transforming programs and searching out partnerships to ensure her students find good work right out of school and/or attend college for more degrees and a successful future.

Monty Tech, located in north central Massachusetts, serves 18 communities.

Her energy has been evident her entire career, and particularly when she was principal at Worcester Technical High School, where nearly 65 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced price lunches.

Harrity’s leadership was a success. From 2006 to 2013 the state MCAS [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] passing rate increased in English Language Arts from 27 percent to 92 percent, while math rates rose from 35 percent to 84 percent. And the graduation rate increased from 79 percent to over 96 percent in 2014. Dropout rates fell from 6.5 percent to 1 percent in the same time frame.

Her success at Worcester Tech earned her the 2013 state Principal of the Year and the 2014 National High School Principal of the Year awards. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education named Worcester Tech a National Blue Ribbon School for student achievement. And it was the only high school in the nation in 2014 to host President Obama as commencement speaker.

Harrity received a bachelor of arts degree with a major in social work from Providence College. She has a master’s degree in moderate special needs from Assumption College, and a master’s degree in early childhood education from Worcester State University.

In 2013 she earned her doctoral degree in educational leadership from Northeastern University. She has experience in early learning and social work, and has been a teacher and assistant principal. Now a District Administration Leadership Institute member, she remains deeply committed to forging a brighter future for all students. Harrity recently spoke about her leadership and beliefs with managing editor Angela Pascopella.

DA: Let’s start with the question: Are vocational technical schools so different from traditional schools?

It’s very different. As our country’s schools are challenged by a huge achievement gap, and a gap that is widening, Monty Tech and Worcester Tech have no achievement gap.

It’s a very successful model. It’s not about students regurgitating information and taking a bunch of tests.

Students are learning theory in their academic classes and are able to apply this knowledge in their technical program. They never ask, “Why do I have to learn that?” They understand it because they apply their skills and knowledge into their work.

You focus on goals and making them happen. And when you were named principal of Worcester Tech, you turned around a low-performing school. Tell us about that.

I became principal in July 2006 after the former principal retired. I was principal at Wachusett Regional High School, which was right next to Worcester. And an administrator called to ask if I wanted to lead Worcester Tech. I had worked as a district coordinator in the city for years, assisting in a high school dropout program and in the AVID program.

And when I took the job, some people thought it was crazy. It was one of the poorest performing technical schools in the state and it was underperforming, but I looked at it as an educator’s dream because the infrastructure was there. It had just been rebuilt, and was a brand new facility, with business and industry support.

And it was working with a population of students who really needed help. I thought that with the commitment of some of the business leaders in the community that we could really turn it around and make it something special.

In 2013 we worked with Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which was one of 26 colleges in the world to compete in China’s Solar Decathlon [a competition co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the China National Energy Administration]. We helped construct a modular home, and students learned all about zero energy.

We also implemented the Early Career and College STEM Innovation plan, which has 350 industry and higher ed partners. Students learn from project-based experiences with real-world applications, and graduates earn industry-recognized certifications.

You did make it special. President Obama visited your school in 2014.

We took a struggling school and we became a Blue Ribbon school. When the president came, it’s something you remember forever. It was such a community celebration.

It really validated the community’s work and really showed people that if we all could come together and make decisions that were best for students, that we could do amazing things. It was a great way for everyone to take a bow.

When you came to Monty Tech last fall, what were your first steps?

I spent the first 100 days listening to staff members, students and educational stakeholders. Our administrative team evaluated the school, which has 20 different technical programs. We realized that to enhance the school we should have a school business partnership with a local bank.

We created an RFP proposal and selected Workers Credit Union. They will build a full service bank in our lobby [this month] and connect it to our business tech program. Those students will learn how to be a bank teller and have cooperative educational opportunities where they will be paid as bank tellers as they are learning and working at the bank. A bank manager will work with our teachers.

We’ll send that curriculum to nearby Mount Wachusett Community College to see how many college courses could be embedded in our business tech program, so students can get industry-recognized credentials and earn college credits.

And we’ll create a financial literacy program, with the bank, for all ninth through 12th graders so they understand the importance of keeping good credit, having a savings and checking account, and getting a full picture of how to manage their money. As you can see in our society, people are finding out the hard way that they didn’t manage their money properly.

You also improved the health services program. How?

Monty Tech has a health program that allows students to get certified in CPR, home health aid, medical terminology and first-aid. And we needed to offer a fifth certification as EMT. So we partnered with Mount Wachusett college so senior students could take an EMT course and receive eight college credits free of charge, and at the end of the course, take the state exam to become EMT-certified.

In addition, we wanted to share best practices with other vocational schools. The school was already in the process of writing a grant for a simulator. And we ended up buying two simulatorsÑone that mimics a toddler and another that mimics an adult.

These are computerized mannequins that have “health problems.” We also created two simulator labs and an observation area with windows so a teacher could peer into the two labs. Students will be diagnosing and treating their patients. And the mannequins will react to the treatments that students administer to ensure they treat them properly.

We try to make the learning as authentic as possible. This is real cutting-edge. And this is really what’s happening at the college level and higher right now.

Our construction students were hired over the summer, along with some of the faculty members, to build the two labs. Our students are graduating with real hands-on experience and with industry-recognized credentials.

And you have a technology plan?

We want to teach the teachers first how to use Chromebooks before we roll out computers. We want to make sure they are comfortable with the technology.

We’re in the process of creating a three-year technology plan that would include going to 1-to-1. But this is the question we’re going to be asking of our staff and instructors: What does 1-to-1 do to enhance the 20 different programs we have now? There is less research about the impact of technology on a vocational setting. We want to walk before we run and want to make sure we have a strong foundation to build upon.

What keeps you striving for more?

When I worked at Worcester Tech, I felt the job was my moral and ethical responsibility. I can say that at Monty Tech, with the high unemployment rate here, a school can break the cycle of poverty through education and training. And that’s true of this type of knowledge and skillsÑit can empower students to have opportunities to be successful in college and a career, and provides them a leg up over others.

Angela Pascopella is managing editor.