When then-Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang reached out to Tommy Welch to join his team in Boston, Welch said he repeatedly told the schools chief no.
Welch had just opened up a new high school in Los Angeles. He was emotionally attached to it as he had known many of the students since they were in elementary school. And he had spent 16 years working in Los Angeles, one of the country’s largest urban school districts.
But after a few transitional and leadership changes around him, Welch agreed to go in for the interview Chang recommended. Soon after, he made East Boston his home.
“I’m not the type of person to just say ‘hey, I feel like I’m ready to be a superintendent, I might as well go apply to whatever job,’” Welch said during a Friday afternoon public interview to become the next Boston superintendent.
“I would only lead a district that I’m emotionally and physically connected to,” he said. “BPS is that district. Boston is that city.”
Welch, a regional superintendent for Boston Public Schools, was the second of two superintendent finalists to be publicly interviewed this week. Welch repeatedly emphasized his ability to hit the ground running immediately on July 1.
The School Committee is scheduled to choose the next district leader Wednesday.
During the interviews Friday, Welch was asked how he will elevate the voices of people of color in the district and ensure that they can trust his leadership, and how he will continue the anti-racist and equity work the outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius began during her time in the district.
Welch recalled the time he first went to East Boston seven years ago, meeting with community members who mostly spoke Spanish, and hearing from them about what was or wasn’t working. Based on those first conversations, he said, the district was able to change grade configurations in East Boston that previously were prompting families to leave the area.
“I believe that elevating all voices is one of the most important things,” Welch said. “A leader cannot do their work unless they’re hearing from people and authentically understanding what people want for their children and what they want for their school communities.”
Here are some other highlights from Welch’s interviews:
Welch described extensive experience working with multilingual learners, including as an English as a second language teacher and principal of a majority-English learner school in Los Angeles, as well as the network superintendent for Boston’s majority-Latino East Boston region and in building up the dual language program at the Mario Umana Academy.
Welch described the delicate process of converting a school to a dual language school, with veteran teachers needing to relocate to other schools as the program expanded to make room for additional bilingual educators. He also talked about methods to recruit multilingual teachers, including hiring multilingual paraprofessionals and helping them get their teaching certifications.
Welch described bringing an inclusive special education model into practice when he was a middle school principal in Los Angeles, bringing 10 substantially separate classrooms of students into the general education program in a single year. Welch called it a “tremendous feat” to get buy-in, requiring all professional development for a year to be focused on supporting special education students in general education classrooms.
But it can have a huge impact, Welch said, referencing a student he had who was a “math superstar” who was able to thrive after joining the general population for math classes.
Drawing on his experience closing the Edwards Middle School in Charlestown, Welch emphasized the importance of planning ahead when a district decides to close a school, which the next superintendent may have to do as the district grapples with aging buildings and declining enrollment. Giving sufficiently advanced notice allows families — and staff — to plan ahead for any closures.
Welch also said the district should learn from other cities that have had to close schools in recent years and that it will be easier for families to accept closures if they see that the district is moving forward with new buildings with “beautiful auditoriums.”
Welch said he’s had experience working with families and students at an early age to create a plan for what it looks like to graduate and believes there must be strong, ongoing communication to help families understand the value of education and the importance of earning a diploma, which could result in higher graduation rates.
“When some of our students graduate, especially in Boston Public Schools, they may be the first student that is enrolling in college in their family,” Welch added. “It just begs for additional counseling and support beyond the years that we have with them and in Boston Public Schools.”
Welch said there’s a tremendous opportunity to expand Madison Park Technical Vocational High School. He pointed to his time as a teacher and administrator in Los Angeles, where the district had schools open until 10 p.m., saying he would like to explore such options for Boston students.
Welch said transportation plays a significant role in chronic absenteeism for students.
“If we cannot get the students to school that we promised, we are actually contributing to the chronic absences ... that we know has detrimental effects to our students.”
Unreliable transportation also negatively affects high school students, he said, as some may have additional responsibilities outside of school.
Spending federal funds
“I do not want to be the school superintendent who has to return $100 million in ESSER investments back to the federal government,” Welch said, noting that the district is on the clock to spend its $400 million in pandemic-related federal funds by 2024.
He added the money was intended for students who were most affected by the pandemic and it needs to get into “the hands of the folks who are closest to the schools,” which he said would be school leaders. Welch said he would like to get the money to the principals as fast as possible so that they can make those decisions on how best to use the funds.
Teacher retention and diversity
Welch said he would like to tap into more of the resources through higher education institutions and engage with would-be educators not only when they’re graduating from college but also as early as high school.
“This year, we got a huge grant from the state ... where we were able to pay high school seniors $15 an hour to work in schools to introduce them to classroom teaching, hopefully leading them to jobs with us,” Welch said, adding that he’s benefited from it in Region 1.