New Fairfax County superintendent brings fresh thinking

April 25, 2013

“I AM NOT a one-size-fits-all leader,” said Karen Garza, newly named Fairfax County school superintendent. Ms. Garza currently runs a system that is a fraction of Fairfax’s size, but she also was a top deputy in one of the nation’s largest districts. That experience — knowing that what works for one school may not work for another — should stand her in good stead when she takes over a system that has both vaunted successes and unmet challenges.

Ms. Garza, superintendent for the past four years of the Lubbock Independent School District in Texas, was officially offered the Fairfax job in a unanimous vote of the school board last week. Ms. Garza, who previously had been chief academic officer of the Houston Independent School District, will succeed Jack D. Dale when his nine-year tenure ends July 1.

A “strategic planner, a systems thinker, a stellar manager, and a highly effective communicator” is how the board described Ms. Garza in giving her a four-year contract. It noted her success in engaging her community in tough decisions, such as closing and consolidating schools, with minimum trauma. Her work in Houston helping to absorb an influx of new students displaced by Hurricane Katrina was seen as equipping her to face the challenges of Fairfax’s growing student population. And her ability to give teachers in Lubbock a raise without cutting programs was hailed as evidence of her skills in using limited resources.

Her first order of business, she told us, is to get to know Fairfax County and its school community. She knows that discipline policies have been a concern and that there is some support for later starting times for high school students. On the latter, she says she is very much open to the adjustment because of research showing it is beneficial to student development. Interestingly, the high schools in both Texas districts where she worked have starting times around 8:25 a.m., about an hour later than Fairfax’s.

Particularly encouraging is the force with which Ms. Garza talks about the importance of narrowing the achievement gap that separates minority and poor students from their better-off peers. Fairfax has had mixed success in addressing this persistent problem, as evidenced by the paltry number of African American and Latino students who gain spots at Thomas Jefferson High School, the math and science magnet. So Ms. Garza and some fresh thinking are welcome.

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