Excellence in Action

Debra Duardo ‘94, M.S.W. ’96, Ed.D. ’13

Photo of Debra Duardo

Debra Duardo ’94, M.S.W. ’96, Ed.D. ’13 was appointed Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors effective May 15, 2016, designating her as the top education leader of the nation’s most populous and diverse county. In this post, Dr. Duardo provides leadership and support to the superintendents and other top administrators of the county’s 80 K-12 school districts.

She has more than 20 years of professional experience working with at-promise students and their families. Her unique life experience as a high school dropout able to overcome obstacles and rise to the position of County Superintendent drives her passion to ensure that all students receive an education in a safe, caring environment and that every student is college-prepared and career ready.

She holds a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a doctorate from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.

Interviewed by Monique Beals • February 10, 2020

To start, will you please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role?

I have three degrees from UCLA starting with my undergraduate work. I was working for the LA Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACCW), and I had various roles there. I started off as a Child Abuse Prevention Coordinator doing child abuse prevention workshops in LAUSD. I then became the Education Media Coordinator and did more publicizing and informing the media of the types of things that LACCW was doing. I became a Hotline Coordinator and Director of Training, where I recruited and trained volunteers for the LA Rape and Battery Hotline. In my last position there, I was the Director of Development, and in that position, I was responsible for doing fundraising and bringing in money to help support some of the initiatives at that organization.

I spent 10 years at LACCW. Once I got my MSW, I wasn’t planning to go into education, but when you get an MSW, they place you at an internship. I was placed at some schools in LAUSD, and as a result of that, I became a School Counselor with a focus on student attendance and working with children and families that were not coming to school regularly.

From that position, I moved on to become an Assistant Principal, which was really cool. I was the Assistant Principal at the Middle School that I attended as a student. Some of the teachers that were my teachers were still there. I then became an administrator overseeing pupil services and attendance. Then, I became a Director of Dropout Prevention and Recovery, and in this position, I was really responsible for addressing the high dropout rate in LAUSD and figuring out what we could do to reduce the dropout rate – not only preventing kids from dropping out of school but also looking to recover kids that had already dropped out.

Later, I became the Executive Director for Student Health and Human Services.
In this position, I was responsible for the oversight of all of the support services in LA Unified, so that included physical health programs, mental health, school nursing, counselors, dropout prevention and recovery, foster youth, homeless youth, adjudicated youth, and managing the programs that were there to support students that had many, many challenges in their lives and barriers that prevented them from doing well in school.

I was at LAUSD for 20 years and then from there, I came into the position where I serve now as the Superintendent of Schools for LA County. I’ve been in this position for four years. There are 80 districts in LA County. LAUSD is one of them. We provide support and oversight to many of those districts in terms of approving their budgets, making sure that money is spent as intended for students that are English language learners, in foster youth, and students that are from low-income families. We make sure that funding that is designated for those students is spent on those students. We work on providing a lot of professional development and training, and when schools are identified as in need of additional support, we come in and we provide more intensive support to districts to help them receive better outcomes for their students.

We also are like our own district here, because we provide the classroom instruction to the students who are incarcerated. We have juvenile halls and camps where we have teachers and administrators just like a regular school to support those students. We also have a couple of schools that are specialized schools such as L.A. County High School of the Arts, where we have students that are academically excelling and specializing in all types of art.

That’s where I am now. As I said, I’ve been here four years serving the lead education agency here in LA County, advocating for students, ensuring that our funding is adequate, going up to D.C and Sacramento, and trying to change laws and advocate for more funding and more support for public instruction.

What inspired you to choose this career path?

I’ve always wanted to do something to help others, especially people who are underserved and have struggled in life. My own personal experience as someone who dropped out of high school after being there only a week motivated me as well. I became a teen mom when I was 16 and dropped out of high school, and I had a son with a severe disability that had, in the first year of his life, 10 operations. We went through a lot. I knew from my own experience how challenging life could be, and I wanted to be able to help others. When I was placed at a school, it was because I was working on my Master’s in Social Welfare. I wanted to prevent other children from dropping out of school because I felt like, if I had had more support, I might have stayed in school. I had a lot of empathy and the ability to make a difference, so that’s what motivated me to go into education.

How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?

The instructional program was very rigorous. When I transferred from a community college to UCLA, I didn’t think I was going to make it. It was very, very rigorous with a lot of reading and a lot of writing. It wasn’t something that I was used to. Having had that type of rigor forcing me to be a critical thinker has helped me throughout my life both personally and professionally. It taught me to really think independently. It also taught me not to give up, because it would have been really easy for me to just say it was impossible.

When I was going to UCLA as an undergrad, I had four children. I had one with a severe disability. There were many times where I thought I just can’t do this. It’s just too much, but I think the experience of getting through it and taking it one quarter at a time was beneficial. I saw that it was hard, but I could get support and help. I could get through it. It taught me that I was stronger than I thought I was.

What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

I’ve had a lot of career challenges. In every position, there are challenges. Part of the challenge is just wanting to get better outcomes and leave feeling like I made a difference in making things better. When I was the Director of Dropout Prevention and Recovery for LAUSD, each year we had about 20,000 students on our dropout list. These are students that had already dropped out of school, so we were trying to prevent kids from dropping out of school and also recovering kids and getting them to come back to school. My goal was to reduce the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate.

It was challenging to be looking at such a large district and trying to work towards changing the culture of the district in terms of what our responsibilities are, how we view children who have dropped out of school, and the strategies we could take to make a difference. People had an image in their head of who those kids were and kind of gave up on them, so there’s a challenge in really getting people to change their mindsets, to believe in kids, to believe that, if we gave these kids more support and services, they could come back and be successful.

What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your field?

I would tell them that you have to invest in your education and work hard to make sure that you are qualified to do the work that’s out there. Remember to be inclusive and to think about equity. Whenever you’re working with students and parents or communicating with students and with parents, remember that you don’t have all the answers. You need to look at the students and parents and get their voice. Learn from them in terms of how to best serve them to be strong advocates.

It’s an absolutely wonderful career that takes a lot of work and a lot of patience. Never give in to the thought that difficult jobs are hopeless. You can make a difference if you work hard and collaborate with the right people. Set clear goals, and you can really make a significant difference.

Since graduating, have you spent any time back on campus or participating in the UCLA community?

I’ve been invited to come back to speak in the Social Work Department about some of the programs and initiatives in my career. I’ve also been asked to participate in a program emphasizing women in education and leadership. I also go as a participant to learn from some of the equity summits that they have and to hear some of the reports that are coming out from UCLA. I’ve enjoyed working together to really address some of the things that are very critical to our students and families and getting people out of poverty.

What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?

First of all, just the fact that I got into UCLA. It’s not easy getting into UCLA, and especially when you come from a background like mine where you’re a high school dropout, getting into UCLA was a huge accomplishment for me. I’m proud that I graduated cum laude with honors.

I really am proud that UCLA has always been about social justice and having an impact on bettering our society. Those are all things that make me really proud, and I’m proud of all the research and great work that comes out of UCLA.

And finally, what’s next?

I think there’s a lot of work still to be done here. This is a huge county with about 2 million students that we’re serving. This is my fourth year, but I have some really huge goals that we’re making some progress on. One is ensuring equity throughout LA County and making sure that the kids that have the highest needs are getting their fair share of resources and services. I’m working on developing more partnerships as I’ve been realizing that there’s not any one agency that can do this work alone.

I want to work on addressing trauma, too. There’s a lot of trauma, especially with children who’ve had a tremendous amount of adverse childhood experiences. Living in poverty can be traumatic. Just figuring out where you’re going to sleep the next night for the number of homeless kids is a traumatic experience, and we want to provide support. We’re also looking at preventative models focusing on early literacy and early childhood education as we try to get as many kids ready and able to learn through the educational system. There’s a lot of work to do here. I don’t know what comes after this, but right now, my focus is on doing the best I can while I’m here.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.

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