Karen Garza spent the summer sizing up Fairfax County’s vast school system, the largest in Virginia and one of the largest in the country. Rather than waiting for school to start Tuesday, when 184,625 students are expected to take their seats in county classrooms, the new superintendent already has developed a plan for significant change.
The veteran Texas educator says she wants to close achievement gaps, expand gifted education and provide iPads to every student. She said she will push for later high school start times, would consider supporting charter schools and wants to focus on the needs of the county’s poorest students.
“It’s our responsibility to champion for the rights of all children,” Garza said during a lengthy interview. “We have a professional and moral obligation to ensure that all needs are being met.”
As Virginia students return to classrooms across the state, Garza is taking over a county school system with a strong reputation, but one that faces real challenges. Already, Garza said she sees areas in need of improvement: Rising enrollment continues to put more pressure on teachers; facing deficits and dwindling state and federal dollars, Garza said the schools must cut costs and explore new revenue opportunities beyond the county’s coffers, including corporate partnerships and grants from educational foundations; and teachers, who have seen wages stagnate during the economic recovery and whose salaries lag behind other Washington area school districts, need to be better compensated for their work, she said.
“We’ve got to be more competitive in the marketplace,” Garza said. “It’s mission critical.”
Garza, 50, a mother of four who was an administrator in the Houston public schools before running a smaller system in Texas, has immersed herself in Fairfax since arriving earlier this summer. She has met with advocacy groups, teacher representatives and parents to get a sense of their concerns.
“The community has to have a voice and feel listened to,” Garza said. “Large school systems, because of their size, feel unfriendly, and we need to work hard against that.”
Many of those who have had conversations with Garza describe her as approachable and attentive.
George Becerra, chair of the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, took part in the superintendent selection process. Shortly after Garza was hired in April, Becerra reached out to Garza at her Lubbock office to offer his congratulations. He said she responded immediately, saying she looked forward to working with him and giving Becerra her cellphone number.
“Right from the beginning she was very open,” Becerra said.
Beverly Jurenko, president of the Fairfax County Association for the Gifted, said that Garza has promoted collaboration with parent groups since her term began in July.
“We’re seeing a secondary effect from her openness, where I think that some of us are starting to reach out to people with whom we may have had disagreements in the past and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to sit down and talk about this? Can we find common ground?’ ”
Garza was serving as superintendent of the 30,000-student school district in Lubbock when she was recruited through a nationwide search to become the chief of Fairfax schools. Earlier in her career, she served as the second-in-command of schools in Houston, the seventh-largest school district in the country with 210,000 students.
Garza said she moved to Fairfax with her husband, Louis, at the end of May and began attending meetings to familiarize herself with the school system. Her predecessor, Jack D. Dale, was unable to assist in the transition, abruptly ending his nine-year tenure after a medical emergency.
Garza said that the county’s surging enrollment is among the most significant challenges she sees. Every year, she said, the system grows by 3,000 students, which equates to about 134 classrooms. At the same time, the system is not building enough schools to keep up, Garza said.
“It’s something we have to contend with in the future,” Garza said. With limited green space in Fairfax, Garza said she supported revising the current design model for schools — low-slung brick buildings centered on large swaths of land — to construct facilities several stories tall on leaner parcels.
Garza said she intends to remain optimistic regarding previous proposals from the community. She said that Lubbock high schools opened later than in Fairfax, giving sleep-deprived teenagers more rest. She also said that the small district she led in west Texas had two charter schools and that she would support the Fairfax County School Board when it reviews the application for a charter program in the Bailey’s Crossroads area.
Virginia has a small number of public charter schools, but various jurisdictions have been considering them and state politicians have advocated for expansion of the charter movement as such schools proliferate around the country, including in the District.
In the county’s classrooms, Garza said she seeks to broaden the Advanced Placement curriculum and foster a more cooperative relationship with community colleges to make higher education affordable to Fairfax families and their children.
For the county’s brightest students, Garza plans to open advanced academic centers, and she is considering an “early admission” option for high-scoring applicants to the elite Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
One of her long-term goals, Garza said, is to place tablet computers in the hands of all Fairfax students.
“I recognize the enormity of that,” Garza said. “But we are doing a disservice to our students if we don’t provide them with those tools for learning.”
Garza said that she aims to offer more support for the county’s at-risk students who struggle to meet state benchmarks on standardized tests.
“We still have an achievement gap, and economically disadvantaged students are the most significant group and our greatest challenge,” Garza said. “We are making that a priority.”
To teachers unions, Garza’s arrival has been viewed as a positive move, said Kimberly Adams, president of the Fairfax Education Association. Having seen the battles with previous administrations, Adams said she thinks Garza will try to improve morale in the workforce.
“The tenor in the room has changed,” Adams said. “She’s been willing to listen. She takes notes in her meetings for later, which shows us it’s not just lip service.”
Steve Greenburg, president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, said that Garza was quick to address teacher complaints about being inundated with extraneous work. Greenburg said that during a July work session with the school board — and only a few days after Garza took office — she reduced the number of tests teachers had to give students to prepare for state standardized exams. She also took steps to ensure that teachers were given a full day in August to prepare for the academic year.
“She immediately had solutions on the table,” Greenburg said. “Now I know that if she says she’s going to do something, she actually does it. I’ve had to completely shift gears, because over the last three years I’ve had a sense of mistrust toward the school staff when it comes to transparency and coming through with promises.”
Garza has taken on daunting challenges before. In Lubbock, she closed 11 schools that had declining enrollment and were costly to keep open. She said she attended about 400 meetings to garner public support. In the end, she said, the measure passed with overwhelming backing.
No matter the issue, Garza seeks to engage residents in the decision-making process to help find consensus: “I’m all about finding common ground,” she said.
Garza said that she intends to revisit discipline policies this year, after a lengthy school board review last year divided the county.
“It’s unfortunate that the dynamic of the debate had school leaders against advocacy groups. We have to own some of that,” Garza said. “We can never forget that we’re about serving young people and what’s best for them. We can never lose sight of that.”