Barbara A. Garza. Executive Director and Head of School, AESA Prep Academy

Barbara A. Garza is an award-winning education industry veteran with an inherent and longstanding passion for education. She is currently the Executive Director and Head of School for the AESA Preparatory Academy and serves as the Executive Director of the AESA International School System. She is a recipient of the Governor of Texas Teaching Award and another for creating a program for students with special needs called Partners in PE.

Throughout the four decades of her glorious career, Barbara’s transformative leadership, resilience, and innovative vision have set a new standard for educational excellence. Her principled decision-making, coupled with a vision for reinventing education, has not only elevated AESA Prep Academy but serves as an inspiration for educational leaders across the globe. Barbara is the epitome of hard work, passion, and perseverance.

Early Childhood Experiences that Helped Shape a Career in Education

Barbara’s love for learning and wanting to become an educator was fostered early in life. Her experiences growing up and into her later years, surrounded by a family of educators: her dad, a professor at the University of Texas; her grandmother, a one-room schoolhouse teacher; and her uncle, a maths teacher who taught at high-risk schools, truly shaped her educational path. Their passion for education and dedication to student success inspired and motivated her to pursue a career in education.

While walking down memory lane, Barbara shares, “As I grew in my educational career, it became clearer how much I was inspired by their experiences. It helped me to firmly plant my feet on the side of wanting to do something with my life that I felt could make a difference in a student’s life and to effect change in the exciting education process for the better.”

Transitioning From the Role of a Teacher to an Education Administrator

Barbara started her career in public education and, over a span of many years, held various teaching, coaching, and administrative positions in public schools and private college prep schools, as well as creating an online school used for homeschooling and blended learning. Being exposed to the experiences of the educators in her extended family and her own gave her the unique opportunity to see just about every style of education. However, there were things that she liked and did not care for in all three.

“I wanted to take the best parts of each, mix in a healthy dose of my philosophy, and create my own school. That meant quitting my stable job as an academic dean and starting from scratch,” shares Barbara. Talk about taking a leap of faith! The idea was just the beginning. She needed to find trained teachers and families who would be willing to become a part of a brand-new school—a school that was both unproven and untested. One night, Barbara and her husband brainstormed over the idea, and it didn’t take them long to say “Yes.” This ‘Yes’ became the key to AESA Prep Academy’s success.

The Inception Story of AESA Prep Academy

AESA Prep Academy is a brainchild of Barbara, who envisioned an educational environment where students are not constantly juggling school, training, and homework but rather enjoying a balanced life where education, personal interests, and family time coexist harmoniously. Recognizing that this needs to be extended beyond her family, Barbara established AESA Prep Academy (originally abbreviated as Academic Excellence for the Student-Athlete) in 2009 to support other local tennis families seeking a similar balance. The school’s flagship campus was situated outside of vibrant Austin, Texas, starting with just four students, including Barbara’s sons, and soon became a beacon for junior tennis players seeking high-quality education tailored to their athletic commitments.

Nevertheless, AESA Prep Academy’s journey took a remarkable turn in 2012. The school’s reputation for rigorous academics, experienced and dynamic teachers, and a positive and uplifting culture began attracting an array of diverse students. These were academically focused students, drawn not by athletic programs but by the quality and ethos of the school’s education. This influx led to a diversification of AESA’s student body, primarily comprising scholars, athletes, and artists and a re-evaluation of its mission. The school’s name was modified to ‘Academic Excellence for the Scholar, Athlete, and Artist,’ a change that accurately mirrored its diverse and talented student community.

Afterward, Barbara’s husband came fully onboard to AESA Prep Academy, and together, they built the AESA International School System, which presently houses AESA Prep Academy of Barcelona, AESA Prep International (the online school), and Windsor School Bahamas.

What makes AESA Prep Academy a Notch Above the Rest?

Unlike the traditional one-size-fits-all teaching approach, AESA Prep Academy works with each student individually to create an academic program to accommodate their unique needs. The school’s ‘Small-by-Design’ philosophy allows every student to have meaningful learning experiences, friendships, and community. Moreover, AESA’s curriculum is Cognia accredited (formerly AdvancEd & SACS) based on National Standards, the PSAT, the SAT and the ACT. In addition, AESA is NCAA-approved to ensure students’ eligibility with Division I, II, and III colleges and universities.

Furthermore, AESA Prep Academy’s students distinguish themselves academically by taking dual credit courses through its partnership with the University of Texas and UC Berkeley. AESA’s dual credit program gives its students a chance to experience university-level coursework, prove competency to college admissions, and get a head start in the pursuit of graduating college. Besides, AESA understands a quality SAT/ACT score is critical to attending a top-level university, and that’s why it provides SAT/ACT Prep courses, purely designed to help prepare its students to earn a great score.

‘Small by Design’ Philosophy

A pivotal reason why AESA Prep Academy students are so successful is because AESA is a small school. Every school year, AESA has a student body population of 130 students. This smallness is part of its philosophy, is by design, and allows the school to do things other public and private schools simply cannot.

“With the ‘Small-by-Design’ philosophy, our teachers can challenge the advanced students and provide remediation for the students that need extra help, all within the same learning environment,” shares Barbara. Students sit together at a round table with their teacher, and in combination with the AESA teaching philosophy, students are strongly compelled to be engaged and actively learn. In addition, AESA Prep Academy strives to make each person feel important by listening to them. The school also crosses the board’s work to alleviate the stress inherently built into many educational systems.

Personalized Academic Plans

At AESA Prep Academy, the foundation of its individualized academic plans is a deep understanding of each student’s unique needs, learning styles, and aspirations. The AESA teachers achieve this through initial assessments, regular one-on-one meetings, and continuous feedback from teachers, students, and parents. Additionally, AESA Prep Academy offers a flexible curriculum that can be adapted to suit individual student needs. Whether it’s accelerating in a subject area where a student shows particular strength or providing additional support in areas of challenge, AESA’s curriculum is designed to be malleable.

Likewise, AESA’s individualized plans balance academic rigor with students’ extracurricular interests. This balance allows students to excel academically while having the time and energy to engage in sports, arts, or other passions, contributing to their overall personal development. AESA’s skilled educators, trained in delivering personalized education, continuously monitor each student’s progress and adjust their academic plans as needed. Emphasis on life skills and personal development is significantly given.

As a result, AESA’s individualized academic plans are not just about academic customization; they are about nurturing each student’s entire educational journey. By understanding each student’s unique needs, offering a flexible curriculum, maintaining small class sizes, and focusing on personal development and life skills, the school ensures that its personalized approach benefits students academically and personally, preparing them for college and the wider world.

Community Service: A Multifaceted Endeavor

Community service at AESA Prep Academy is a multifaceted endeavor. By integrating community service into its curriculum, fostering local partnerships, encouraging student leadership, and focusing on personal development, AESA ensures its students are academically prepared and ready to contribute positively to society.

For this, AESA Prep Academy has established robust partnerships with various local non-profits and community groups, offering diverse service opportunities that align with its students’ interests. Students are encouraged to lead and manage their service projects, fostering a sense of responsibility and honing leadership skills. Through workshops and guest lectures, the school educates its students about social issues and the impact of their contributions. “We celebrate those who show exceptional commitment, inspiring their peers and reinforcing a culture of service,” asserts Barbara. Altogether, students learn invaluable life skills like empathy and teamwork, shaping them into well-rounded, socially responsible individuals.

Helping Others is an Important Character-Building Skill

Barbara established the McNeil High School, a public high school in Round Rock, Texas, which became one of the largest volunteer groups for the district. She started this notable community to impart good character education to AESA students and teach them how helping others can positively impact the world and contribute to the greater good.

To begin with, Barbara rounded up students from the football team, other athletics, ROTC, and the fine arts program students, ensuring the group had some of the most fun and charismatic students. “I learned from this experience that you have to have your inclusive student leaders onboard to successfully get something like this started. You also have to be enthusiastic and inspiring for it to take off,” shares Barbara. The McNeil Spirit Blazers went on to help their school and the local community in many ways, like helping an elderly woman fix up the outside of her home. A humble yet rewarding experience!

Staying at the Forefront of Technology & Innovation

At AESA Prep Academy, Barbara and her team continuously adapt and innovate to meet the evolving needs of education. Referring to AESA as ‘The Future of Education,’ they emphasize personalized learning experiences, allowing their students to balance academic pursuits with their extracurricular passions. Moreover, integrating advanced technologies and data-driven approaches in curriculum design and teaching methodologies ensures that AESA Prep Academy remains at the forefront of educational innovation. Apart from this, the school also prioritizes the professional development of its educators, ensuring they are equipped with the latest knowledge and tools.

“Engaging with our community for feedback and focusing on the holistic well-being of our students are also key aspects of our approach,” states Barbara. By doing so, AESA prepares its students for academic success and a future where adaptability, creativity, and resilience are paramount.

Student Success Stories

Over the years, there have been numerous instances where parents have approached Barbara and expressed their gratitude towards AESA Prep Academy and how it has completely changed their children’s lives. In one instance, AESA had a student who was exceptionally gifted in mathematics but struggled with language arts. In a traditional classroom setting, this student became increasingly disengaged, feeling unchallenged in math and overwhelmed in English. However, through AESA’s individualized approach, the teachers accelerated the student’s math curriculum, allowing him to take advanced courses while providing targeted support in language arts. The student won a regional mathematics competition and showed remarkable improvement in language arts, demonstrating the effectiveness of a personalized learning approach.

In another instance, AESA had a student-athlete who, due to training and travel for competitions, found it challenging to keep up with a conventional school schedule. The AESA’s individualized approach allowed for a flexible schedule where students could complete their coursework at a pace that suited their athletic commitments. This student went on to play for the University of Southern California. These are just a few examples illustrating how AESA’s individualized approach to education has significantly impacted students’ academic journey, catering to their unique needs and helping them reach their full potential.

Taking Cues from Personal Coaching Experiences

As a coach and a teacher, Barbara has always given importance to keeping her interactions with her players and their parents positive and uplifting. It taught her how to deal with adversity and how to successfully guide parents and students as they deal with the emotions that competition and training evoke in everyone. Therefore, building and maintaining this positive and uplifting culture has been one of the most essential tenets of the AESA Prep Academy schools. Likewise, as an administrator, she has transferred that experience into the everyday culture at the AESA Prep Academy schools. Barbara explains, “When I created AESA, I felt it was very important to address the individual needs of the athlete and fine arts students alongside the student who is just a scholar. This is part of our culture.”

Transforming Challenges into Growth Opportunities

As the Executive Director and Head of the School, one of Barbara’s primary challenges is keeping pace with the rapid changes in the educational landscape, especially with the advancements in technology and shifts in educational best practices. Similarly, maintaining the balance between offering individualized attention, managing a growing student body, and ensuring that AESA is a welcoming and inclusive environment for a diverse student body becomes challenging. Apart from these, balancing the financial aspects, recruiting and retaining high-quality educators, and building strong relationships with the local community, including parents, local businesses, and educational partners, is also a complex and tedious process.

However, Barbara regards these challenges as an opportunity for the growth and development of the institution. “These challenges have pushed us to innovate, adapt, and strengthen our commitment to providing an exceptional educational experience,” says Barbara. “They have been instrumental in shaping AESA into a dynamic, inclusive, and forward-thinking educational institution.”

Significant Career Milestones

For Barbara, the most important achievements are those of her students. “A child reaching their goals and seeing their dreams come true is why we have AESA,” humbly asserts Barbara.

Over and beyond that, the success of AESA Prep Academy of Austin, AESA Prep Academy of Barcelona, and AESA Prep International (the online school) have brought great joy to Barabara. Almost 5 years ago, together with her husband, Barabra started their school system, AESA International School System and added another school that wanted to be part of their Cognia/AdvancEd Accreditation, Windsor School Bahamas, which has been another feather in the cap.

Roadmap to the Future

Going forward, AESA aims to remain at the cutting edge of educational innovation. Under Barbara’s leadership, the school plans to deepen its commitment to personalized learning, refining its approaches to ensure that every student’s educational journey is tailored to their unique needs, interests, and aspirations. AESA also envisions expanding its local and global community engagement, including building partnerships with educational institutions, industries, and community organizations. While academic excellence remains a priority, AESA also plans to focus more on the holistic development of students. From sustainable campus practices to incorporating environmental education into the curriculum, AESA aims to cultivate an ethos of responsibility towards planet Earth among students.

Furthermore, AESA aspires to become more accessible and inclusive, ensuring students from diverse backgrounds benefit from its educational offerings. AESA aims to contribute to educational thought leadership, sharing insights and best practices through conferences, publications, and collaborations with academic bodies. Strategically, AESA looks towards sustainable growth, potentially including expanding the school’s physical campus or adding new programs and facilities. “Our vision involves equipping AESA students with the skills and knowledge to navigate the 21st-century digital world effectively,” concludes Barbara.

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