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New Fairfax Superintendent: 'I Am A Constant Learner'

Fairfax County Public Schools new leader says she'll focus on teaching and learning as she succeeds Superintendent Jack Dale, who retires June 30.

In her first public appearance in Fairfax County, incoming superintendent Karen Garza said her focus would be on teaching and learning and responding to students and their needs — a philosophy she intends to continue if she begins work here this summer.

At a press briefing late Thursday afternoon, she said she'd seek input from a wide range of stakeholders when approaching difficult situations.

"I think every decision you make and every challenge that you face, having various voices included in those solutions ... makes for a much better decision," she said.

Garza, currently the superintendent of the Lubbock Independent School District in Texas, was officially appointed the next leader of Fairfax County Public Schools at the school board's regular meeting Thursday night.

She'll start July 1.

Read: Fairfax School Board Names Karen Garza Superintendent [Video]

She will be the system's first female superintendent — though she told reporters she wasn't sure what difference she would bring to the job as a woman.

She said she was a collaborative leader well prepared for Fairfax, one of the country's largest school systems.

"I work hard and love this work. I am a student of teaching and learning. I love instruction ... I feel like I could teach today," Garza said. "I am a constant learner with regards to what are best practices, what does the quality of teaching and learning look like today. And so I will tell you that that's the way I would approach my leadership style. Is that different than some men? Maybe. Maybe it's different than some other women. I don't know."

While she neglected to set an agenda for her tenure, saying she would work collaboratively with the school board to set priorities, she did highlight teacher workload as an issue that requires more immediate attention.

"They are on the front line and we need to make sure their needs are being met," she said.

She said she planned to create a number of standing advisory groups — including one for students, among other stakeholders — that could help offer insight as she and the system face various challenges.

Other issues Garza addressed:

Student Testing and Assessment

"There is a place for assessment," she said, but thinks "in many cases state assessment programs have gone way too far, and to some extent have taken the love and joy out of learning."

She said she hopes to help strike a balance "between measuring what students know and what they are able to do" with "the ability for students to also have an ability to engage in learning that's meaningful and vey deep and enriching."

"Not everything is about the test," she said.

The Achievement Gap

Fairfax school board members have said they value the work Garza has done in Lubbock and Houston to close those districts' achievement gaps — an issue that has come to the forefront of Fairfax's board agenda this year. 
"You have to have quality measures of whether or not that achievement gap is being addressed — it's important teachers have the tools to measure progress of individual students and know how far they need to go to catch up with the age-appropriate peer group."

She also said literacy-based approaches to developing academic vocabulary for at-risk students and early childhood programs help address issues earlier in a student's career, which helps them find more success later on.

Discipline

Garza said all school systems — including Fairfax and her districts in Texas — are struggling with trying to find "the best approach for creating the most conducive learning environment."

"Discipline I think first has to start in the classroom. I think teachers across the system also recognize that," Garza said. "The best place [to start] is the teacher working with that child’s parent."

As infractions become more serious, Garza said "you have to have quality systems in place and you have to have standards and procedures so you an ensure that students are being treated fairly across a large system like this."

She said principals also need tools to make tough decisions.

In the Katy, Texas school district, Garza said she redrew boundary lines nearly every year — not ideal, but necessary, she said, as was involving stakeholders in every step of the process.

"I believe that experience will serve me well," she said. 

She also said the Lubbock district was one of Texas' lowest-funded school systems, but she and the board of trustees gave teachers a 9 percent raise over the course of four years and did not cut any classroom resources.

"We made classrooms and programs for students a priority," she said

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