Sheila Harrity, principal of Worcester Technical High School, had a big secret when she called an assembly Thursday.
In the auditorium, the school’s 311 seniors were treated to a slideshow displaying pictures of their achievements and their good deeds from their time at the school.
The final slide in the presentation was the big reveal: a photo of their upcoming commencement speaker, President Obama.
“Everyone was completely silent for about two seconds, and then all of a sudden everyone is standing up and clapping, and some people were crying with excitement,” said Gregory Carlson, 17, a senior studying robotics and automation technology.
“I thought it was a joke at first,” said Abigaele Mann, 17, a senior studying biotechnology. “It’s just such a great honor for us — I mean, how do you top President Obama?”
The announcement capped a year of successes for the vocational school. After years of poor performance, it has risen through national rankings, receiving a Blue Ribbon nomination by the US Department of Education. For her leadership, Harrity was named national principal of the year in 2013.
“It’s been such an incredible year for us, but certainly no one could have predicted this would happen,” Harrity said in a telephone interview. “We’re so extremely honored and humbled that he is coming to speak with our students, and their reaction is something I’ll remember forever.”
The Obama administration first reached out by e-mail to Harrity on March 10 to ask if she would be interested in having him as commencement speaker. The June 11 speech at the DCU Center arena in downtown Worcester is expected to be the only high school commencement address he will deliver this year.
“Worcester Tech has made outstanding headway in boosting its graduation rate, implementing cutting-edge vocational programs, and ensuring that all of its students have the opportunity to succeed,” Keith Maley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.
The last sitting president to visit Worcester was President Clinton in 1999.
Harrity was asked to keep the announcement under wraps until the information was ready for public release.
“When I found out, I was actually at Brigham and Women’s Hospital because my mother was having open-heart surgery,” Harrity said. She was checking her phone after leaving the hospital to get some fresh air when she noticed an e-mail with the subject, “Question from the White House.”
According to the message, the president had noticed the school’s success and wanted to help celebrate the senior class.
“At that point, I started crying because I was so totally overwhelmed with joy,” Harrity said. “I’ll never forget standing there on the sidewalk, with cars and ambulances screeching by, and just thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe this.’”
Harrity readily agreed to the president’s visit but made one request, that her students would be the first to know.
“Everything that has happened to our school is because we put our students first, and we needed to stay true to that belief and share the news with them first,” she said.
Ten days later, Harrity fulfilled that promise to an auditorium full of ecstatic college- and career-bound students.
“Everything that she does is for us and for our school,” said Mann, who said she hoped to be a neurosurgeon one day. “And this happening to us, and how far we’ve come — it’s a really big deal.”