Transforming education: Esther Garcia '90, '92

By Tess Eyrich |
Riverside, Ca –

Esther Garcia is the first to admit that for many students, getting to college can be just as much of a challenge as going through it. 


“I had no clue how to prepare for, or even apply to a university,” said Garcia, then a first-generation prospective college student from Los Angeles. “Information about college wasn’t provided by my counselor or teachers, and I didn’t attend information fairs or workshops on the subject. My high school counselor told me I wasn’t ‘college material’ early on, so I believed him, and I didn’t make an effort to learn what going to college meant.”


That all changed when Garcia’s 12th-grade history teacher, Salvador “Sal” Castro, took her on a tour of local colleges — including UC Riverside — as part of a group of fellow first-generation applicants. 


“He taught me the importance of a college degree and guided me through the application process,” Garcia said of Castro. “I saw an opportunity for independence, and I took it; I left for UCR in the summer of 1985.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, she also went on to receive a multiple subject teaching credential from UCR’s GSOE.


Since then, Garcia has spent her career improving access to and the quality of education for young learners. She taught for 11 years in kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms before climbing the ladder to the principal’s office at three Riverside schools classified as “high-needs” under the federal Title 1 program. Working closely with staff and district leaders during her time at these schools, where a majority of students are from low-income families, Garcia was instrumental in turning all three into high achievers. 


During her first year as a new principal at Hyatt Elementary School, Garcia helped the campus gain 56 points on the Academic Performance Index, a statewide measurement then used to gauge schools’ annual academic growth. She went on to serve as principal of Highgrove Elementary School, where she and her team focused on closing the achievement gap in mathematics. Most recently, as principal of Liberty Elementary School, she has been part of a movement to implement innovative tools that increase student engagement, achievement, and access to technology.


“I don’t take credit for turning around underperforming schools because a team effort is required to accomplish such a huge task,” Garcia said. “Yes, I was the principal at the schools that experienced the turnarounds, but many people were part of the effort and process.”


Now, thanks to a recent promotion, Garcia will be able to give back to the community of educators she’s quick to praise. As her district’s first-ever professional growth system support principal, she serves as a coach and mentor for other principals — some of whom, like Garcia once was, might be experiencing their very first days on the job. 


“I was mentored by amazing educators and administrators along the way,” she added. “I feel extremely lucky to have been selected for this position because I get to pay it forward.”