As superintendent in Lubbock, Tex., Karen Garza joined hundreds of volunteers in a door-to-door campaign to persuade students who had dropped out of school to come back to the classroom.
“It really humanizes the dropout issue,” said Garza, for whom the annual event is a cherished memory. “It’s an inspirational experience to meet these young people and talk about their challenges. There’s usually lots of tears shed on that day.”
Garza, 50, is known across Texas as a down-to-earth educator who, as a teacher, principal and superintendent, has striven to stay out of the news and in the lives of her students. She will now bring that student-centric approach — and her 26 years of experience — to Fairfax County, where in July she is slated to take over Virginia’s largest school system.
As a little girl, Garza dreamed of becoming a teacher like her father, a college English professor in Texas. She began as a kindergarten teacher in a tiny Texas town, then rose to principal and deputy superintendent in other school districts before moving to Houston as second in command of the city’s 200,000-student system. But she always had the ambition of one day leading a large school district.
Now Garza will become the first woman to lead Fairfax County’s public schools, whose fall enrollment is expected to exceed 184,000 students.
“I think it’s great to see more and more women run larger organizations,” said Garza, who was also the first female superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District in West Texas, where she has served since 2009.
“Its a very positive message for young women, that you can aspire to high-level leadership positions.”
Garza has focused attention on student test scores while working in Texas. In Houston, she is credited with helping students reach historic performance levels when she was the chief academic officer. For instance, the number of students who passed Advanced Placement tests set new records.
Abe Saavedra, the former Houston superintendent who hired Garza there, said she took charge of a pay-for-performance bonus system for the city’s teachers.
The bonuses — up to $10,000 — were linked to student test scores from the beginning and end of the school year. In 2009, teachers received a record $31.4 million in bonuses, funded by state and federal grants as well as local tax dollars.
Yet just a few years later, as superintendent in Lubbock, Garza supported a school board resolution asking the state to reduce the number of standardized tests that students are required to take.
She told the Avalanche-Journal newspaper there that she worried about “over-testing” students and advocated looking at “new ways to measure” performance.
Garza also curried favor with teachers unions. Gayle Fallon, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said Garza was very popular among union members.
“She doesn’t have the mean streak that we see in a lot of superintendents,” Fallon said. “She brought respect to all levels. If I could show her that someone was just unnecessarily rude or cruel to an employee, she would take care of it, and it wouldn’t happen again.”
Fallon said Garza was a behind-the-scenes operative whose tenure was notable for its lack of controversy.
“She wanted to make a difference, rather than make headlines,” Fallon said.
In Houston, perhaps the biggest problem she faced was a 2007 report in the Houston Chronicle about school libraries. The newspaper reported that 70 percent of the school system’s library collections failed to meet state standards because they had so few books or the books they had were so old. After an independent audit confirmed the Chronicle’s findings, Garza and other officials came up with a multimillion-dollar plan to revamp the libraries.
In Lubbock, a disciplinary policy brought the sort of headlines that Garza seeks to avoid when she told the Avalanche-Journal early last year that corporal punishment remained on the books there but that it was used “rarely” and as a “last resort.” She told The Washington Post that she had instructed principals that such punishment should never be used.
In her four years as superintendent in Lubbock, Garza has been credited with narrowing the achievement gap, increasing the graduation rate and helping to reduce the number of students who drop out. Steve Massengale, president of the Lubbock school board, said Garza also helped shore up the school system’s finances.
She helped establish a school-system-owned pharmacy for employees who were part of the system’s self-funded health plan. The pharmacy was estimated to save the school district at least $570,000 and its employees $1.2 million over three years.
“She’s extremely intelligent,” Massengale said. “Her work ethic is very impressive. She’s there early and works late. She has this CEO-level mentality and this love of children and a passion for education.”
Such financial successes would be welcomed in Fairfax, as the county works to deal with economic strains and budget cuts.
During the interview process, Fairfax School Board members noted that Garza has experience across the educational spectrum.
“The mix of the range of her experience and her successes were all important factors,” said member Sandy Evans (Mason), who noted that Garza was the board’s unanimous choice.
Garza, a registered Republican, said she has voted for candidates from both major parties. She said that as Fairfax superintendent, she would never let politics take precedence over “what’s right for the children.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.