Leadership Profile: Karen Garza
Her journey from rural Texas to wealthy Virginia is a study in contrasts, with some surprising similarities.
It is 1,664 miles from Lubbock ISD in West Texas to Fairfax County Public Schools in Falls Church, Virginia. That would take roughly 24 hours to drive, but the differences between these two school districts are not just geographical. Rural Lubbock has 30,000 students and is one of the lowest-funded districts in Texas; Fairfax has 184,000 students and its per-pupil expenditure of $13,500 is nearly 70 percent more than Lubbock’s.
That these districts are being compared at all is because Fairfax’s new superintendent, Karen Garza, came straight from Lubbock. “A lot of people are mentioning that,” she says of her seemingly odd transition. When you dig past the dialects and lifestyles of the two areas, it starts to become clearer not only that they share some similarities, but that Garza’s history in a variety of education jobs makes her an ideal fit.
“We aggressively recruited her,” admits Ryan McElveen, a Fairfax school board member. “The thing that attracted us most to Karen was her ability to work collaboratively in a community and bring about the kind of change we were looking for.”
Beating the Budget Blues
Garza’s work in Lubbock was mostly dictated by keeping the district solvent and moving students and staff ahead despite a $14 million reduction in state funds over four years. Her long-term planning and tireless outreach to various community groups laid the foundation to narrowly pass a $200 million bond in 2010.
“She made some very difficult and strategic decisions during that period,” says Steve Massengale, president of Lubbock’s Board of Trustees. Garza closed 11 schools and laid off employees from the central office, but she also managed to raise teachers’ salaries by nine percent over a four-year period.
“We did some things a superintendent never wants to do. But there was a communications strategy. There were no surprises,” she says. “I think one year I had 400 different community meetings on school finance and closures and facilities.”
The slim victory allowed the district to fund new campuses, upgrade its security system, add $28 million of technology, and kick-start a robust PD program.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that those small meetings helped pass that bond,” Massengale says. “We had little or no professional development strategy in our district.” Using a long-term plan, Garza brought in PD experts and created a system that could help produce future leaders. That’s an important consideration when the largest nearby community, Dallas, is six hours away.
Fixing a Space Crunch
While Fairfax county doesn’t have these types of problems, the fast-growing school district does have two major issues Garza plans to tackle quickly: getting facilities up-to-date and putting the brakes on the plethora of new initiatives that have swamped her staff members in the last year.
The district’s burgeoning student population has literally added a classroom of students every instructional day for the last five years. Not surprisingly, the district’s infrastructure hasn’t kept up. Garza plans to tackle the problem the same way she attacked Lubbock’s challenges, by creating a sound long-range plan that she sells aggressively to all parts of the community.
“Currently, we have a huge renovations backlog, and while we have better political and community support than she did in Lubbock, we really need to further engage with the community to make them realize how dire our conditions are right now,” says McElveen.
While many new superintendents like to make their mark by starting new programs, Garza has already heard that she might do best to cut back some of the recent initiatives in Fairfax. “You have to be very structured in the way that you manage change. We recognize that [the district] took on too much last year,” Garza says.
“The number 22 has been mentioned to me quite a number of times. I think individuals in the field have been counting how many new things they had to deal with last year. We acknowledged that we did overwhelm our teachers and our schools,” she adds.
Another similarity between the districts, in addition to not adopting the Common Core State Standards, is trying to mitigate stubborn achievement gaps. Lubbock’s diverse student population and more glaring gaps have shown Garza how best to confront the growing problem in Fairfax. “The research literature is very clear about what works in schools where we’ve got gaps we have to mitigate, and that is a very strong focus on literacy, the intentional teaching of academic vocabulary so students have the ability to access the curriculum. And more writing—we need to do a lot more writing.”
The more Garza settles in, the more similarities she sees between Houston, Lubbock, and now Fairfax. In fact, she’s been asked about her quick assimilation so frequently that she’s ready with a quick answer. “I wish I could say it’s because I’m so intellectually gifted. It’s really not the case. The issues are the same anywhere you go. The demographics may be different, but the challenge all public schools face is, how do we respond to the varied needs of our student population?”