West Virginia’s new State Superintendent of Schools is a proud Son of Marshall whose life’s work has been helping children succeed.
“Like many college freshmen, when I enrolled at Marshall University I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” says W. Clayton Burch. “But by the end of my second year, I had made a decision. When I started working part-time at what was then called the Norma Gray Child Development Center, I found I really enjoyed working with young children. From then on, child development became my lifelong passion.”
Today, Burch has served in both teaching and educational leadership positions for more than 25 years. In February, the State Board of Education named him West Virginia’s 32nd state superintendent of schools, replacing Steve Paine, who resigned from the post. In his new role, Burch faces a number of challenges, not the least of which is steering West Virginia’s schools through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Applauding Burch’s appointment, Marshall President Dr. Jerry Gilbert said he was “pleased that he has been selected for this important education position in our great state. I’m confident Clayton will lead West Virginia’s schools in a positive, enlightened direction. And, of course, I am very proud that he is a Son of Marshall. He represents our university well.”
Burch has earned not one, not two, but three degrees from Marshall — a Bachelor’s Degree in Elementary Education (1996), a Master of Arts in Family and Child Development (2000) and a Post-Master’s Certificate in School Administration (2007).
“I’m a West Virginian, through and through,” he says. “I was born in Weirton and grew up in Hancock County. Before he retired, my dad was a pipefitter at Weirton Steel. My grandfather also worked there, as did many of our relatives. We lived on a small farm until I was in junior high school. My mom then went to work as a secretary for a local waste management company. I graduated from Oak Glen High School and was fortunate enough to marry my high school sweetheart, Tracy. And I’m happy to say we’ve been married for 24 years.”
The couple has four sons, ages 20 to 15. Their oldest, Dalton, has followed in his father’s footsteps to Marshall and will graduate this year with a degree in finance.
“I really loved my undergraduate days at Marshall,” Burch recalls. “I enjoyed the campus atmosphere, and I had some truly great professors. I lived on campus my first two years in the Towers East dorm. My second year, I was a resident advisor on the 15th floor there. I made a number of friends at Marshall and enjoyed every minute of my time there. My third year, I moved off campus with some buddies and I still see them today.”
As an undergrad, Burch was always looking for odd jobs where he could pick up some badly needed money.
“We can take legitimate pride in our West Virginia education system. We have built one of the best Universal Pre-K education systems in the nation, and we were one of the first states in the nation to put in place a third grade literacy campaign.”
–W. Clayton Burch
“Roberta Ferguson, who was then the registrar at Marshall, steered me to several little jobs,” he says. “One day she told me that a recruiter from Kuwait was on campus, looking for students who might be interested in teaching there. She said she really hated for the gentleman to go away empty handed and urged me to interview with him. I had just earned my bachelor’s degree and was planning to go to grad school. But teaching in the Middle East sounded like a remarkable opportunity. I interviewed with him and a short time later I went home and asked Tracy what she thought about packing our bags and heading for Kuwait.”
She thought it was a great idea.
“We were young and ready for an adventure. We made the most of our time abroad, traveling around a good bit.”
For two years, Burch taught grades 2-4 at Dasman Model School, a private, bilingual school in Kuwait City.
“It was quite a blessing to live in Kuwait after the Gulf War. It gave us a real insight into the trauma the children had suffered from the war.”
When he left Kuwait, Burch came back to Marshall’s Huntington campus, enrolled in graduate school and started working at MU’s Early Education Center in Corbly Hall. From 2000 to 2007, he was the center’s director. “We became a full-fledged, nationally accredited preschool, and in 2003 we opened an outreach center doing professional development across the state.”
In 2007, he left Marshall to join the West Virginia Department of Education, and over the next 13 years assumed a series of increasingly demanding responsibilities there.
In 2017, Burch was named associate superintendent of schools, the No. 2 job in the department. Before that, he was the department’s chief academic officer, heading its Division of Teaching and Learning. In that post, he was in charge of early learning, secondary learning and special programs, as well as assessment and research.
Some of his projects over the years included implementing Universal Pre-Kindergarten, working on increasing reading achievement for third grade students, helping create the state’s College and Career Readiness Standards and improving high school graduation rates.
“We can take legitimate pride in our West Virginia education system,” Burch says. “We have built one of the best Universal Pre-K education systems in the nation, and we were one of the first states in the nation to put in place a third grade literacy campaign. And, these accomplishments were achieved over a period of years, and in collaboration with a number of West Virginia governors and legislative bodies.”
In 2018, while Burch was associate superintendent, he briefly served in two governor-appointed posts. Gov. Jim Justice appointed him acting secretary of the Department of Education and the Arts after an administrative change was made within that department. Months later, the governor again appointed Burch as interim secretary of commerce during a transitional period with that division. Burch fulfilled both those roles while maintaining his responsibilities at the State Board of Education.
Justice has praised Burch’s energy, calling him a man whose finger “is stuck on the ‘on’ button.”
Burch was first named superintendent of schools in February, when Dr. Steven Paine announced he was resigning to take care of a family member and spend more time with his grandchildren. There’s no provision in West Virginia law for an acting superintendent, so Burch took the job knowing it might be only temporary.
In June, the board members interviewed Burch and two other candidates for the job in executive session. After the interviews, the board held a news conference to announce Burch had been named to the post.
“The position of state superintendent of schools is one in which few individuals have had the opportunity of serving,” Burch says. “It is my goal to continue to move forward a state education system that promotes innovation, rigor and compassion for all West Virginia children.”
About the author: James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.
Photos (from top):
- W. Clayton Burch is the new West Virginia Superintendent of Schools.
- The West Virginia Capitol Complex in Charleston.
- Burch is steering West Virginia’s schools through the COVID-19 pandemic.