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Superintendent Karen Garza finally managed to extricate herself from a meeting full of elementary school principals on June 26.

“Every principal wants to tell me something about their school,” Garza said. “So it can be hard to get me out of a room.”

Fairfax County’s superintendent is not complaining. A year into her tenure, Garza said she still always looks for for new connections to the school community.

That visibility allows Garza to serve as a pillar of the school system even as she reshapes it around her. She has overseen a number of major reforms since she took the reins from previous superintendent Jack Dale on July 1, 2013.

For Garza, change starts in the classroom.

Throughout her first year, she visited 82 schools across the county. That number fell a bit short of her goal of 98, exactly half of the county’s 196 schools. She planned to do the other half next year.

“I need to step it up if I’m going to make it,” she said with a laugh. Turning serious, she continued, “It’s a priority of mine to spend time in schools. That’s our core work. That’s why we exist.”

School Board member Ted Velkoff (At-large) recalled that on the first day of school this year, Garza started her day at Chantilly High School. Velkoff accompanied her as she went around the hallways.

“Karen Garza could not walk into a classroom without talking to students,” Velkoff said. “She didn’t just pop her head in. She really wanted to know what these kids were thinking.”

The superintendent said her decision-making improves when she can make a connection to schools, so she speaks with students and teachers “on the ground” every chance she gets.

Garza began her career as an elementary school teacher before moving into administration, eventually serving as second-in-command for Houston Independent School District and then superintendent for Lubbock ISD before coming to Fairfax.

Yet though she spent just five years a classroom teacher, Garza maintains that classroom sensibility. When she started last July, one of her first priorities was saving teachers from “initiative fatigue.” Educators complained that the flood of new tasks and projects each year prevented them from actually teaching their students.

“We are not here to be in the way of schools but to be in touch with their challenges and needs,” Garza said.

The Fairfax County school system certainly faced challenges as Garza came to the helm.

She jumped from a school system with 30,000 students in Lubbock to a division with 184,000 students and climbing. In the past five years, the student population has grown by almost 15,000 students.

The expanding student population also comes with shifting demographics. Close to 40 percent of the county’s kindergarten students required English language instruction in the 2013-14 school year, and more than one-third qualified for free or reduced-price meals, a federal metric of poverty.

Velkoff said the school system has also struggled to maintain smooth lines of communication between the superintendent and the community.

“There have been a number of hot-button issues over the years, and some folks in the community have been quite unhappy with how past superintendents and school boards have handled them,” Velkoff said.

Trust, Garza said, does develop over time. But trust can also grow when you place an investment in relationships.

Garza’s focus on building bridges with students, with teachers, with the community, has allowed her to cultivate trust quickly, even on formerly rocky ground.

“That trust, I don’t take it for granted,” Garza said. “It strengthens over time, but it’s also real and solid now, and I’m glad I was given that. I don’t take it lightly.”

Still, she has not been afraid to put that fledgling trust to the test.

From November through May, she navigated a tense and complex budget process, in which she achieved employee raises but also had to eliminate more than 730 positions.

Then in June, she pushed the School Board to move forward with plans to end Monday early dismissals in elementary schools, a policy that had been in place for four decades and had withstood challenges for almost as long.

School Board Chairman lryong Moon (At-large), who supported the schedule change, said: “Why did I wait so long for this? I waited until we had the right superintendent to take this on.”

“Dr. Garza coming in from the outside, she comes in with a more unbiased perspective,” Velkoff said. “She’s not tied to the way things have always been done here.”

As Garza begins her second year on the job, the changes continue. A reorganized, streamlined structure for the school system took effect Tuesday, exactly one year after she was sworn in as superintendent.

“A large school system can be difficult to interact with, and we want to protect ourselves from getting that way,” Garza said. “We are trying to make sure we hear people’s voices.”

“I really get energized by interacting with other people who care about our school system,” Garza said. “I hope they’re considering my ideas, because I know I’m learning from theirs.”

kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com