WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - Saluting graduates as they leave the safety of high school behind, President Barack Obama held up a revitalized technical school in New England on Wednesday as a model for the United States as the nation works to prepare youngsters for a global workforce that's more competitive than ever.
At Worcester Technical High School, Obama praised students and teachers alike for giving more than just "lip service" to the idea of skills-based education. He said the graduates were finishing senior year knowing how to run a restaurant, fix a computer or manage a household - skills that he said would let them begin their careers right away.
"I want the entire nation to learn from Worcester Tech," the president said.
Sixteen years ago, the Worcester campus was so outdated it was nearly shut down. Obama touted the school's remarkable transformation into a school with a demographic and educational profile that makes it a model of achievement.
"If it can happen in Worcester, it can happen in any place," Obama said.
Obama has been putting a spotlight on his education policies this week, drawing attention to efforts to lower student debt. But he also has been eager to showcase programs that break from the traditional classroom format or that are designed to improve the nation's science and technology workforce.
The Worcester school stands as an example of a triumph against the odds.
Six out of 10 students at the high school are underprivileged and qualify for free or reduced meals; 2 out of 10 have special needs. Yet, two years ago it was one of five schools nationally to win an award for student growth in high poverty areas. Last year, it was one of the Education Department's 286 national blue ribbon schools. And this year, its principal was named the Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Obama reflected on his own struggle to overcome similar obstacles as a youngster growing up in Hawaii, adding that his family at times "had to scrape to get by." But ultimately, Obama said, the support of his teachers, family and community enabled him to finance a good education through grants and student loans.
"All of this happened because people saw in me something that I didn't always see in myself," Obama said during a commencement ceremony whose festive spirit wasn't dampened by rain that sent family members reaching for their umbrellas.
The rebirth of the school in this city halfway between Boston and Springfield came after the Worcester community decided, with the help of state and federal grants, to build a new, $90 million school that opened in 2006. The school has built relationships with businesses and universities, including a partnership with the Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine, that provide students with real-life experiences through internships and cooperative education jobs - an idea that Obama himself has promoted.
Following his address at the school, Obama was to attend a fundraiser for the campaign committee working to elect Democrats to the Senate.
Obama told the graduates that despite the cynicism that's emerged in the aftermath of the recession and the winding down of two wars, students at this school and ones like them across the country are showing that the U.S. will not only compete with the rest of the world, but "we are going to win."
"We don't settle, we outwork," Obama said. "We out-innovate, we out-hustle the competition. And when we do, nobody can beat us."