By Jim Tortolano/Garden Grove Journal
Fourteen years ago, school board member Bob Harden was looking over candidates to head up the Garden Grove public school system. Without too much difficulty, he settled on Dr. Laura Schwalm.
“She talked to us about a vision for what we could do and where we could go as a district,” recalled Harden. “It was probably the most important and best decision I ever made on the board.”
Schwalm will be stepping down at the end of June as superintendent of the Garden Grove Unified School District, which serves five cities and is among the largest in California.
During her tenure test scores rose sharply, the proportion of graduates eligible for four-year colleges increased and the GGUSD won the Broad Prize for Urban Education.
A lot of accomplishments, but Schwalm spreads the credit around. “I am just very proud of the entire district,” she said. “The administrators, the teachers, the support staff. They’ve all been great.”
She started with the district in 1972 as a student teacher, and moved through many roles, serving as a teacher, an assistant principal, an assistant superintendent and finally associate superintendent for budget and personnel when she was tapped to head up the GGUSD in 1999.
Schwalm has been widely-praised within the school system for her good relationships with employee groups, community leaders and non-profit organizations. But her “brand” isn’t just local.
“I think what a lot of people don’t know is that Laura is not just well-known locally, but she’s regarded very highly statewide and nationally,” said Harden. “She had opportunities to go elsewhere, but chose to stay in Garden Grove.”
For Schwalm, the secret for any successful school system is simple. “Keep the focus on the kids, on what’s good for the kids.”
When her tenure ends in a few days, she’ll be moving across the hall at the Education Center for a few weeks to provide some input to the new superintendent, Dr. Gabriela Mafi. While Schwalm will continue in a variety of educational endeavors, one of her goals is to spend more time with her family.
“They’ve been very understanding and supportive of what I feel I had to do to do this job the way I thought it should be done,” she said. “I think I owe them some time.”
Until then, she will listen to accolades and farewells that sometimes overwhelm her tear ducts. “Sometimes my heart gets so full it overflows through my eyes,” she said. “It’s a bittersweet moment. I love this community.”