John Henry Stanford was born September 14, 1938, at Darby, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1961 and entered the U.S. Army where he was an aviator in the Transportation Corps. He rose to the rank of Major General and retired in July 1991.
Stanford started a second career in public service as the county manager in Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia. In July 1995, he was recruited by the Seattle School Board to be superintendent, one of the few big-city superintendents without a background in eduction. The consideration of a former general for the job initially drew some criticism. But when Stanford described his ideas and when people saw his gentlemanly manner, he was a hit.
On his first day on the job in September, he announced that poor customer service would be a firing offense, and he proposed that all central-office staff spend one day a week in one of the district's schools. Within a week, he offered tougher academic standards for students, a reading offensive, and holding students back a grade if they did not meet academic standards. He promised that the district's building program would be "on cost and on time." When told that his plans could not be done, he said, "It's never been done, and therefore, we will do it" (The Seattle Times).
Stanford quickly adopted a high profile in Seattle, calling himself a children's crusader. He declared that Seattle's controlled choice program for racial balance did not serve minority students. At his urging, the school district abandoned race-based busing in 1996, replacing it with magnet schools and school choices within neighborhoods.
He worked tirelessly, often 16 hours a day. Where some superintendents might have sent representatives, Stanford appeared personally at meetings with parents. He tackled the sluggish bureaucracy that had overtaken the school system. Principals were given more autonomy and were held more accountable. He gained the confidence of the teachers' union.
Test scores rose and the performance gap between white and minority students narrowed. He boosted the support of athletics. His personal charisma appealed to adults and to students. During school visits, children would cluster around him and ask for his autograph. Parents left notes under his car windshield wipers with comments and ideas.
In April 1998, Stanford announced that he was suffering from leukemia. He was hospitalized, then returned to work. The cancer treatments of the following months were unsuccessful. John Stanford died on November 28, 1998.
Stanford's leadership was memorialized with the establishment of the John Stanford International School, one of the programs he founded. Seattle Times columnist Joni Balter wrote:
"He brought leadership other politicians dream about. He improved the schools. He gave the community hope."