A Financial Analyst Follows His Heart


Last year, Highline Public Schools Superintendent John Welch met with teachers in each of the district’s 33 schools and asked them what they needed to do their jobs more effectively.

He got a clear message.

“The one thing they all said they needed more than anything else was time,” he says.

John WelchJohn Welch

Welch and his school board gave teachers just that. This year, the 18,000 students in the suburban Seattle district are dismissed 90 minutes early nearly every Friday, enabling teachers to plan, participate in professional training and collaborate to openly discuss their successes and failures.

It’s all about getting teachers out of the isolation of their classrooms and making teaching a “public practice,” Welch says. “If you’re a teacher who’s struggling, you really can’t hide. … It really is about teachers not letting other teachers off the hook.”

Welch, an AASA member since 2003, says he is continually learning more about what he calls the “complex craft” of teaching. He never taught, other than a brief stint as a college instructor. In fact, he never thought about being an educator at all until he was well ensconced in his professional career.

He grew up in small towns in eastern Washington and central Oregon, raised by a single mother after his parents divorced. When he went to Eastern Washington University, he focused on business. He went on to get his MBA at Pacific Lutheran University.

After several years as a senior financial analyst at Boeing and for the city of Tacoma, he accepted a job at a nearby school district as manager of budget and financial planning. The superintendent there, Tom Vander Ark, had been a business executive himself, and he gave Welch responsibilities beyond the district’s finances — helping to devise new report cards and ensure curriculum adoption, among other things.

As the first of his two daughters approached kindergarten age, Welch’s interest in education deepened. He was accepted into the first cohort of the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains noneducators in school system leadership. As he was completing the 10-month program in 2002, he took a job as deputy superintendent at Highline. He was promoted to superintendent three years later.

Highline’s school board president, Bernie Dorsey, says Welch’s nontraditional background allows him to combine powerful organizational and finance skills with an intense concern for students. Dorsey sees the latter in Welch’s reactions to people who bring their concerns before the school board.

“You feel as though this guy’s heart goes out in every situation,” Dorsey says. “You can see in his eyes and you can hear in his voice that he is deeply touched by whatever the situation may be.”

Welch has his share of challenges. The Highline district is diverse; about a third of the students are white, with 28 percent Hispanic, 22 percent Asian and the rest African, African American and Native American. Nearly two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and 20 percent are English language learners.

To complicate matters, Highline surrounds Sea-Tac Airport, with some schools directly below the flight paths. The district is finishing an eight-year-project to replace 15 aging schools with newer — and more sound-resistant — buildings.

Meanwhile Welch and his board, believing students learn better in more individualized settings, have broken up the district’s four high schools into a series of smaller, independent schools and academies. They also have established a Big Picture alternative high school and an innovative Aviation High School with a hands-on math and science focus. They are raising funds to build a new home for the latter school at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

All those efforts have resulted in significant gains in achievement and graduation rates, but that’s not enough to satisfy Welch.

“We have gotten some good results,” he says. “We are far from where I want to be.”

Paul Riede is editorial page editor at The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail:


Currently: superintendent, Highline School District 401, Burien, Wash.

Previously: vice president for business and administrative services, South Seattle Community College, Seattle, Wash.

Age: 45

Greatest influence on career: Tom Vander Ark, who taught me that impatience and high expectations can lead to things one never thought possible.

Best professional day: March 14, 2006, when our community passed a $148 million bond to build new schools and make a major investment in technology.

Books at bedside: Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky; The Six Secrets of Change by Michael Fullan; and The Irish Americans by Jay Dolan

Biggest blooper: Following a meeting with our state superintendent, as I was getting into my car, I caught my back pocket on the door. It wasn’t until later, when I felt a breeze, I realized I had a 10-inch rip in the back of my pants. Good thing it was after the meeting and not before it.

A key reason I’m an AASA member: The professional network and the resources that AASA provides continue to serve me as superintendent.