WORCESTER — President Barack Obama held up Worcester Technical High School as an example of where he wants education to go in America, saying the graduating class learned skills that made for a stronger United States.
“I’m here today because there is nothing ordinary about Worcester Tech or the class of 2014,” Mr. Obama told the graduates today. “You have set yourselves apart. This high school has set itself apart.”
In his only high school commencement of the year, Mr. Obama told a crowd of more than 5,500 that while he doesn’t remember his high school graduation, the 307 graduates of Worcester Tech this year will likely do so, if only because of the large Secret Service contingent.
But the graduates will most certainly recall the moment when the elected leader of the country confidently walked in to deafening applause after faculty and graduates of the class of 2014 got their own ovations.
“I want the nation to learn from Worcester Tech,” he said, prior to shaking each graduate’s hand as diplomas were handed out.
Mr. Obama said the Worcester community is preparing students for the new economy, where they will be competing for jobs in a global marketplace.
The president noted that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had reported back to him from a visit to Worcester Tech that the school was such an open place. He said Mr. Duncan noted that neighborhood residents can get their cars detailed at the school at a fraction of the going rate, and said a teacher told him the school’s hair salon was the city’s best kept secret.
Mr. Obama also noted the efforts of Worcester businessman Edward “Ted” Coghlin Sr., who advocated for the new school as part of an effort to strengthen ties between the business community and the school.
Ticking off the school’s achievements in testing and graduation rates, Mr. Obama noted that 95 percent of the school’s students graduate in four years.
He added that many of the graduates were leaving the DCU today with more than a diploma; many are already certified to work in their trades, and others have earned credits that will go toward college diplomas.
Weaving some politics in to his speech, Mr. Obama said efforts in Congress to pass legislation easing the burden of student debt have been defeated by Republicans. That elicited some boos, but Mr. Obama cautioned the audience: “Don’t boo, just remember to vote.”
He also urged graduates to remember to give back to the community.
“Each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere invested in our success,” Mr. Obama said.
The President peppered his speech with mentions of individual graduates, using them as examples that other students in other cities across America can follow. Greg Carlson, Derek Murphy and others will always be able to say that a sitting U.S. president gave them a shout-out.
To start his speech, Mr. Obama noted that in addition to forgetting who spoke at his high school graduation, he didn’t remember the party afterward, either. But later in his speech he talked about how he’s trying to launch national initiatives that include things like high-speed broadband and access to more technology, and said Worcester Tech is paving the way.
“You don’t need to remember what I said today, because you’re already doing it,” Mr. Obama said.
Streets from Worcester Regional Airport downtown were blocked off for Mr. Obama’s motorcade, which included more than two dozen vehicles.
Residents who noticed increased helicopter and military plane activity heard one more really loud plane — Air Force One — which landed around 3:20 p.m.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty, along with Gov. Deval L. Patrick and U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, met the president at Worcester Regional Airport. Mr. Patrick rode downtown with Mr. Obama while Mr. Petty and Mr. McGovern shared a car.
During the graduation, Mr. Petty made small talk with the president.
“You could tell he cared about being here,” Mr. Petty said. “He’s a regular guy. … I like him even more than I did before.”
He said the graduation put Worcester and its achievements on a national stage and “every penny was well spent” in regards to the cost of the visit.
Mr. Petty said editing his speech multiple times took its toll.
“I was so nervous all day.”
Inside the DCU, the security presence was obvious but not necessarily obtrusive. The graduation featured a national anthem performance by student Lois Dwira, and valedictorian Naomi Desilets remarked on what it means to be able to savor the final moments of high school.
Ms. Desilets said nobody remembers the last time a parent carried them up the stairs to bed, or the last time they were strapped into a car seat. But they will be able to remember the last days with their friends in high school, she said.
“This doesn’t pass us by without warning like so many other lasts,” Ms. Desilets said.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty reminded the president that he wasn’t the first commander-in-chief to “grace these hills,” and said that while Worcester might be the second largest city in New England, it boasts a history of firsts, from its role in the American Revolution to Robert Goddard’s rockets.
But the idea of marrying hard-working teachers with eager learners like those at Worcester Tech is not rocket science, Mr. Petty said.
After leaving the DCU Center, Mr. Obama returned to Worcester Regional Airport and took a helicopter east for a fundraiser in Weston.
He spoke in front of a small crowd of 30 people seated at small circular tables, according to a pool report distributed by the White House. He thanked the hosts and said “you have one of the best governors in the state.” He also spent time lauding Worcester Tech and all the improvements it has made in a short period of time.
Tickets for the fund-raiser cost $32,400 each.
He appealed to supporters to help ensure the nation’s children have a viable future. He said that now more than ever Democrats need a strong sense of urgency about addressing the needs of the middle class.
The president spoke after dinner at the posh home of huge Democratic fundraisers Joanne and Paul Egerman. He alluded to Tuesday’s upset election in which House Republican leader Eric Cantor lost to a Tea Party supporter, but he did not mention Cantor by name.
Mr. Obama urged supporters to vote with conviction in the midterm elections and return a Democratic majority in Congress. “I am not on the ballot this year, but this is my last race,” he said appealing for dollars and votes. Inside the spacious dining area were half empty glasses of red wine. About four tables, each with about eight people,- were draped in purple tablecloths.
Mr. Obama spent much of the speech focusing on the future of the nation’s children. He said 30 to 40 percent of public school children are immigrants who deserve a chance of a better life. “You don’t know it looking at them but they are as American as apple pie,” he said.
Mr. Obama returned to Worcester after the fundraiser, and his flight to Washington took off at 9:02 p.m.
Alli Knothe and Craig Semon of the Telegram & Gazette staff contributed to this report.