GARDEN GROVE – Garden Grove Unified Superintendent Laura Schwalm, who has headed Orange County's third-largest school district for 14 years, will retire this summer, the district said Wednesday.
Schwalm spent her entire, 40-year education career with the district, beginning as a student teacher and gradually working her way up the ranks. She became known for a quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership style and an enduring commitment to the district's 48,000 students.
"Her strength is really her people skills and her love and dedication to the students in our community," said George West, president of Garden Grove Unified's school board. "She builds relationships with people, visits all the (school) sites. She has taught lessons in classrooms, ridden on school buses, to really learn what's going on in the schools."
In 2004, the district was awarded the national Broad Prize for Urban Education, which is given to one U.S. school district each year for demonstrating academic achievement gains while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students. Through the Broad award, Garden Grove Unified students received $750,000 in college scholarships.
Garden Grove's students are 53 percent Hispanic, 33 percent Asian and 11 percent white; 65 percent qualify for free and reduced-price school meals.
Most students come from Garden Grove, but the district also serves parts of Santa Ana, Westminster, Fountain Valley, Cypress, Stanton and Anaheim. In Orange County, only Santa Ana Unified and Capistrano Unified surpass it in size.
"Absolutely everything that has been achieved during my years as superintendent, I credit entirely to the work of a highly qualified and committed leadership team, talented and caring teachers, dedicated support personnel and classified staff, and a very supportive Board of Education," Schwalm said in a statement Wednesday.
"Leaving the district and community I have come to love will be difficult; however, I do so with the peace of mind that comes from knowing I leave the GGUSD in very capable and committed hands."
Over the past decade, the district's Academic Performance Index score has grown by 141 points, to 821 out of 1,000. The state's minimum benchmark goal is 800.
Like most school districts statewide, Garden Grove Unified has faced steep funding drops in recent years. Still, it has emerged from its financial woes relatively intact.
Class sizes in the district's primary grades have retained an average 24-to-1 student-teacher ratio, while most other Orange County districts have raised average class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to about 30 students each.
The district also has maintained a $48 million rainy-day reserve fund amounting to 11 percent of its annual operating budget.
"It's very rare that you would have a superintendent who would spend her entire career in one district," West said. "But when you find a home in a district with high standards and quality educational opportunities, where kids really come first, as an educator there's no reason to move from place to place."
Garden Grove Unified will begin the process of selecting Schwalm's successor at a Feb. 2 community meeting, where the public is invited to provide input.
West said the board likely would be looking at internal candidates only to replace Schwalm, who has not announced her retirement date.
"We're not going to do a worldwide search," West said. "We have some quality people inside the district who will be able to continue the leadership and instructional improvement of the district."
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