The Washington Post

Obama urges communities to prepare high schoolers for 21st Century careers

President  Obama delivers the commencement address to Worcester Technical High School's graduating seniors on June 11  in Worcester, Mass. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

WORCESTER, Mass. -- President Obama came here to address the graduating class of Worcester Technical High School, urging them to give back and challenging other communities to prepare their graduates for the realities of the 21st Century workforce. But he had another motive.

"Part of the reason I am here is because I've got to to practice," Obama said. His daughter Malia graduates from high school in two years. "I'm trying to get used to not choking up and crying and embarrassing her."

Obama, who has admitted he often gets teary at graduations, stayed composed. Instead, he challenged other communities to replicate the turnaround that took place here at Worcester Technical High School, a vocational school that pivoted 10 years ago to provide students with training for careers in technology and partnered with businesses to help students learn skills that can vault them straight to a career or college.

"I think sometimes I worry that your generation has grown up in a cynical time. In the aftermath of a great recession, in the aftermath of two wars. We live in a culture that so often focuses on conflict and controversy and looks at the glass as half empty instead of half full," Obama said to a fired-up crowd at the DCU Center here. "But when I meet young people like you I am absolutely certain we are not just going to outcompete the rest of the world, we are going to win because of you."

This city of 181,000 in the hills of Central Massachusetts has long been a blue-collar manufacturing hub; it's where the monkey wrench was invented. The school, which opened in 1908 to train ironworkers and woodworkers, now partners with Tufts University to run a veterinary clinic, operates a body shop and hair salon and has a bank inside the school.

The number of students scoring proficient in math has gone up 100 percent and English 200 percent in recent years, Obama said. Worcester Tech's principal, Sheila Harrity, is the 2014 national principal of the year.

"Every community is different, but if Worcester can bring teachers and the business community together for the sake of our young people," Obama said, anywhere can.

Obama urged the graduates to continue this interaction with the community and remember the family members and others who made sacrifices to help them succeed. Obama referenced his own story -- growing up with a single mother, Obama said he credited his early success to others who helped him.

"And all of this happened because people saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself," Obama said.

Part of that help came through the form of student loans, a topic Obama has been pushing all week. On Monday, he issued an executive order capping student loan payments to 10 percent of a person's monthly salary. The change will affect about 5 million people. He continued his pitch at the graduation, telling the students that those who plan to go to college shouldn't be saddled with immense amounts of debt and that college should be more affordable.

Obama this week supported a bill sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that would allow students to refinance both public and private loans at lower interest rates. It would be paid for by closing a tax loophole available to the wealthy. Obama informed the crowd that the Senate voted it down Wednesday, which elicited boos.

"Don’t boo," Obama said. "Just remember to vote."

Obama also told the class that he didn't remember his own high school commencement speaker.

"I do not remember my high school graduation speaker. I have no idea who it was," he said. "I’m sure I was thinking about the party after graduation. I don’t remember the party, either."

Katie Zezima is a national political correspondent covering the 2016 presidential election. She previously served as a White House correspondent for The Post.



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