Alumni Spotlight: Setting standards high for inner-city youth

Holly Welch 1

Holly Welch

Holly Welch, ’08, MSEd

When teacher Holly Welch agreed to create a biotechnology program for Choffin Career and Technical Center in Youngstown, the task seemed daunting. She and her six students started out in a small, windowless room in the basement – no sinks, no lab tables and just one electrical outlet.

But Welch didn’t waste time complaining. She spent the next year researching what the new biotech lab would need and raising $250,000 in grants and school district funds to pay for it. Her students? “I took them everywhere with me, made every decision with their help, because I wanted the program to be student driven,” she said. “They were my pioneers.”

Now, eight years later, Choffin’s biotech facilities rival many college science labs, the program she created has maxed out at just over 50 students per year and there’s always a waiting list. “I told the administration when we started that if we built it, they would come,” Welch says with a grin.

High school juniors and seniors enrolled in the advanced science program can earn up to 19 hours of college credit through an articulation agreement with YSU, and 90 percent or more of her biotech students go on to college.

The ingenuity and determination that Welch displayed when she was asked to create Choffin’s now-flourishing biotechnology program are among the qualities that helped her to achieve four major career milestones over the past year.

Last fall, she was promoted to curriculum supervisor at Choffin, a newly created administrative position. In January, she was chosen as one of four finalists in Ohio’s prestigious Teacher of the Year Award competition, and in February she was one of 25 honorees in the region’s 25 Under 35 Awards Program.Finally, in May, she was recipient of the Youngstown area’s 2014 ATHENA Award, chosen from a field of 20 female professionals recognized for career excellence, community service and mentoring of other women.

Welch likes her new administrative job at Choffin, providing support and professional development for teachers, but it was hard to make the move. “I couldn’t imagine ever leaving the classroom. I feel like I was born to be a teacher, and it was the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” she said.

She sees the change as a way to expand her circle of influence beyond the classroom, and the teachers have been receptive. “They know I’ve been teaching for the past12 years and I’ve walked in their shoes,” she said. “This gives me what the kids call ‘street cred.’ Instead of taking care of the students, now I’m taking care of the teachers.”

Born and raised in Beaver, Pa., she earned her undergraduate degree in biology and a teaching certificate at Geneva College in 2000, then landed her first job as a teacher at the former Wilson High School in Youngstown. She earned her master’s degree in educational administration at YSU in 2008.

Welch said she’s surprised at how often she’s asked if she’s fearful, working in the inner city schools. “I’ve never been afraid. These students love their teachers, and they will do anything for us,” she said. “Some have stories that would make you cry, but they come to school to learn. I have high expectations for them, and they want the same thing for themselves. I’ve never, ever had a problem with discipline.”

Welch and her husband James, a Youngstown police officer, live on Youngstown’s West Side. She has three stepchildren and enjoys doing volunteer work for the Rescue Mission of the Mahoning Valley, First Night Youngstown and other community nonprofits.

(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Fall 2014.)