Tommy Welch is one of two final candidates for superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. The School Committee is expected to make its choice on Wednesday. Read a profile of the other candidate, Mary Skipper, here.
Each day, Tommy Welch speed walks the school hallways of East Boston, the North End, and Charlestown, wearing his backpack and holding his iPhone and a can of flavored seltzer water.
“Wassup?!” the California native says when he finds one of the 15 school principals he oversees. Many lean in for a hug.
His warmth and West Coast informality belie an intensity and urgency to get things done.
He’s run his 7,000-student region like a mini-district by building relationships through frequent visits, regularly monitoring student outcomes, and responding urgently to any problems that arise. His region — larger than most other school districts in Massachusetts — has weathered the pandemic better than the rest of the city’s schools, with more stable attendance rates and test scores.
One of two finalists for Boston school superintendent, Welch said he would bring his strong management to the top job.
In a district often paralyzed by dysfunction, Welch’s tenacity, coupled with his ability to form trusting relationships, is exactly what’s needed in the next superintendent, people who’ve worked with him said.
“He’s someone with a lot of positive energy who follows through on his commitments,” said Justin Pasquariello, executive director of East Boston Social Services, which Welch helped to get funding for remote learning classrooms when school buildings were closed during the pandemic. “BPS hasn’t done well with partnerships, but Tommy has made it much easier to work with the district.”
Many of his principals said Welch has gone beyond the role of a typical regional academic superintendent by helping with operational issues outside of his purview. He’s coordinated communication with parents after an emergency, set up a vaccine clinic, helped find children lost on late buses, and shoveled snow. He’s also fostered collaboration among his schools, brought more resources, and engineered the expansion of the elementary schools in his region to sixth grade.
But is it enough? Could Welch, who has never worked as a superintendent or overseen operations for an entire district, fix Boston’s chronic problems, including transportation?
“His biggest weakness is what’s unknown,” said one outsider who’s worked with Boston Public Schools for years and knows Welch, and asked not to be named in order to remain neutral in the superintendent search.
Welch said he would approach the superintendent job as he has everything else: hire people he trusts who have the skills he doesn’t and support them as they do their jobs.
And, for transportation, he’d look to cities such as New York to see how they’ve solved their busing challenges.
Most important, Welch would be ready to take over as soon as Friday, one day after Superintendent Brenda Cassellius departs. “I wouldn’t need to read a 280-page document to understand what the district needs. I already know,” he said.
Welch’s first priority would be readying schools for the fall, quickly filling hundreds of educator vacancies, to head off last-minute scrambling. “Our schools can’t function without leadership,” he told the School Committee on Friday during a public interview.
His goal is to improve opportunities for students in special education and those learning English and determine what each of the district’s low-performing schools needs — all thorny challenges that have gone unresolved for years.
Educators who’ve worked with him said Welch doesn’t shy away from difficult situations.
In 2019, after two years working on other district initiatives, Welch returned to his role overseeing schools in East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End. Among his first moves: understanding why the lowest performing school in the region wasn’t making progress.
Welch visited the school, Umana Dual Language Academy, more frequently and realized it wasn’t monitoring academic outcomes. Moreover, while advertising itself as a Spanish language immersion school, Umana did not have enough educators who could teach students in Spanish.
The school was also too big — at 800 students — to let languish any longer, people involved remember him saying.
So he took over as principal for three months (while still overseeing more than a dozen other schools) and removed more than 25 teachers, most of whom he helped find other jobs in his region.
Instead of panicking, many teachers said they trusted Welch to handle the situation since they already knew him from his frequent visits to the school.
“It was really brave of him to take that on,” said Christina Michel, the principal Welch then hired to head the Umana. “There’s not a culture of giving feedback in BPS. But he doesn’t shy away from difficult conversations.”
Welch said he thrives on feedback and asked the School Committee to hold him publicly accountable for meeting his quarterly goals, if he’s selected superintendent.
Welch said he can work with “anyone” but some of his success and political acumen have also raised suspicion.
Some teachers worry Welch is too willing to work with the state and take its top-down mandates after his region was chosen in 2020 for a state pilot of a teaching approach championed by state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley. On Friday, Riley made the controversial recommendation to label BPS as “underperforming” and undergo closer monitoring before reaching an eleventh-hour agreement Monday with Mayor Michelle Wu aimed at improving BPS and avoids the designation.
Other observers have questioned if Welch would be as successful with a broader mix of students than in his one area. Welch’s region has a higher concentration of Latino students and students learning English and a lower concentration of Black students than the rest of Boston. Low-income students are equally present in his region and elsewhere at around 71 percent.
Welch came to the district in 2015 from Los Angeles, where he impressed his then-superior, Tommy Chang, who himself moved from Los Angeles to become Boston superintendent that year and stayed through 2018.
Parents in a low-income Spanish-speaking section of Los Angeles wanted a college-preparatory high school, and Welch delivered. “I saw him bring together an entire community that was disenfranchised,” Chang said in an interview. “He built the school from the ground up and transformed that community.”
Welch spent much of his career in Los Angeles teaching English learners, using the Spanish he learned on a college study-abroad program in Ecuador. He met his wife, Karla, the daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, in Los Angeles.
When he came here, East Boston felt most like the family’s Los Angeles neighborhood and they made it their home. His wife is now the family liaison at East Boston High School; their two children study at the Bradley Elementary in East Boston. While working and parenting, Welch also completed a doctorate in education two years ago at Boston College.
The 46-year-old Welch is the son of a “regular white guy,” he said, and a Japanese American mother; Welch identifies as “mixed race” and bristles when he’s characterized as either Asian American or white.
“In California, people can identify themselves as mixed race and everyone understands it,” Welch said. “Mixed race people are invisible here. People don’t know what to do with me.”
Welch has earned trust in East Boston among some Spanish-speaking parents since he’s listened and followed through on promises to help. Elsa Flores, an East Boston parent organizer, said Welch helped resolve many parents’ concerns including a bullying complaint that school administrators and teachers wouldn’t address.
Flores, who’s originally from El Salvador, would have liked to see a Latino become superintendent, she said. But she would be thrilled to have Welch lead the district, since he listens to parents and is bilingual. “He’s willing to keep learning and working with our community,” she said in Spanish.
Christopher Huffaker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.