When John Garcia started as principal at Cedar Park STEM School in 2007, he knew the Apple Valley school had a reputation — and not in a good way.

It was the district's most diverse school, and there was a lot of "white flight," Garcia said. When it came to test scores, Cedar Park was at the bottom for many years.

"When I got here, I said, 'We've got to change our image,'" he said.

In seven years, Garcia has helped Cedar Park do just that — and was recently recognized for his efforts. Although Cedar Park's demographics are similar to before, the school is now on the state's list of 22 "Celebration" schools and has won five consecutive national magnet school awards.

In addition, students of every demographic group are exceeding annual proficiency goals on state standardized tests, some by 20 percentage points. The school has grown by 200 students and has a waiting list of 125 students.

Teachers attribute much of the school's success to Garcia, a charismatic leader who wears a suit every day, believes in his staff and sets high student expectations.

They aren't the only ones who have noticed Garcia's accomplishments. This month he was named the Science and Mathematics Principal of the Year by the Minnesota Elementary School's Principal Association (MESPA).

It's not hard to see why Garcia would be given the award if you visit the school, said Jon Millerhagen, MESPA's director. The climate is "exceptional," he said.

Innovative programming, from preschool for 4-year-olds to free teacher-led after-school enrichment classes, meets students' needs and builds community, Millerhagen said.

"John's the real deal," said Millerhagen. "Everything he does is of high quality and integrity."

The level of student excitement and engagement "is not what you see in most schools," said Peggy Demmert, a second grade teacher and literacy coach.

Outside perspective

Before Garcia came to the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, he was a principal in the St. Paul district, a sixth-grade teacher in Minneapolis and taught in Kansas, too.

Then he took a break from education, spending seven years as a successful pharmaceutical sales manager. During a trip to Hawaii, however, his wife noticed he just wasn't happy. He needed to go back to working in a school, she told him.

"I was missing kids and I was missing the opportunity to have what I would call a societal impact," he said.

When Garcia returned to education and started at Cedar Park, he got to work changing the school's identity. He wanted to completely rebrand it, a skill he learned from the business world.

He chose a color scheme and put bright decals on walls and windows. He had staff wear something with the school's name or colors on it every day, and he donned Cedar Park gear every time he left the house, even on weekends.

Because of his other career experiences, Garcia "brings a different type of understanding and mind-set to the thinking of the school," said Greg Childs, a science specialist at Galtier Elementary in St. Paul when Garcia was principal there.

Garcia's arrival coincided with Cedar Park's second year as a STEM magnet school, so teachers were already switching to a new way of teaching, learning to integrate STEM into everything they did.

Part of the shift involved a change in mind-set. Encouraging students to ask questions is now central to the school's philosophy, and failure is considered part of the learning process, said Lynn Stenzel, a kindergarten teacher and 28-year Cedar Park veteran.

Today, students participate in field studies at Dakota County parks, make things with a 3-D printer, complete outdoor projects in the school's gardens and habitat areas and work with the Minnesota Zoo on projects benefiting animals, among dozens of other activities.

Building trust

When he came, Garcia closed the school's "behavior room" because it was "full of black and brown kids," he said. The school began to build stronger connections with families and the community, sponsoring events like family field trips and planning family engineering nights.

Staff learned more about being culturally responsive, too.

"The diversity is really celebrated," said Shannon Gilmore, magnet coordinator, whose son attends Cedar Park.

Garcia emphasized professional development and encouraged teachers to take on leadership roles. Staff members collaborate every day, team-teaching lessons with the science, technology, engineering and math specialists.

"He trusts all of us," Stenzel said. "He really can see what we're strong in and he builds from that."

Garcia said his goal was to be the best STEM school in the state and nation. With all the accolades, he's close to that vision today.

"Those [awards] only matter because they're a testament to how hard our staff works," he said.

PTO Parent Rolf White, who chose to enroll his kids at Cedar Park for its STEM focus, said the school's success can be attributed to a combination of Garcia, teachers and an innovative use of technology. He mentioned the opportunities students have, from getting to hatch shark eggs for the zoo to attending Starbase Camp, a weeklong Department of Defense aviation program.

"There isn't one person there who isn't doing a fabulous job," he said. "Why couldn't we get every school to be like Cedar Park, across the country?"

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283