Women Leaders in Education – Debra Duardo

Debra Duardo, Superintendent, Los Angeles County Office of Education

Debra Duardo has a really big job. As Superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), she leads the largest education agency in California and one of the largest in the nation. At her direction, LACOEsupports 80 school districts and more than 2 million pre-school and school age children in Los Angeles County. From monitoring local accountability plans and overseeing school district budgets, to providing professional development for educators and direct instruction to students in need, the organization works to ensure the quality of public education across the region. 

Debra Duardo, Superintentendent, Los Angeles County Office of Education

As superintendent, Duardo works with the board and staff, and with schools and school districts, local, state and federal officials, educators, advocates, nonprofits, community leaders and others to lead the effort. Hers is an important and challenging position, and one that requires a range of leadership skills and abilities. 

In fulfilling her responsibilities, Duardo draws not only on the knowledge she developed as an undergraduate and graduate student at UCLA and her professional experience in education, but on a challenging set of personal experiences. Before she was an educational leader, Duardo was a high school dropout, leaving school in the ninth grade, and at age 16, giving birth to a child with a severe disability.  It is perhaps those experiences that set her apart as a leader, fueling her passion for education and fostering an empathy and compassion for those confronted with difficult circumstances.  

More information is available here.


As the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies prepares to launch a new program to further women’s leadership in schools, we would be hard pressed to find a more interesting leader or one we admire more.  In the following interview, Duardo shares some thoughts and insight on leadership. 

UCLA GSEIS:Tell us a little about your job. What are the things that you actually do? What is your job really like? 

Debra Duardo: We are a full-service organization, and I’m the face of the organization. I work with the board, I work with school districts, I work with the community. I also do a lot of advocacy at the state and federal level. People look to me for support. People come to me when there are problems. A lot of my work is having direct conversations with school district superintendents, meeting with them, letting them know what some of our concerns are, seeing how we can support them.

I am also very active in creating partnerships with outside organizations. For example, one of my key efforts is the County Community Schools initiative, where basically, we are providing as many resources as possible directly to schools to meet the needs of students and families.  To get that done, I’ve been meeting with all of the Los Angeles County department heads, the chief of probation, the chiefs of the Department of Children and Family Services, Parks and Recreation, Libraries and the Department of Mental Health and Department of Public Health. I’m talking with them about the need to collaborate, to leverage the resources that we have to focus on equity, and ensuring that our children and families that need the resources the most are identified and that we’re getting those resources to them. And, how we can do a much better job if we combined our resources and leveraged what we had to better serve children. We’re starting off with a pilot of 15 schools where we’re flooding resources to those schools with wraparound services that will support the instructional program and support better student outcomes. We’re establishing relationships and partnerships with folks that have resources that can provide them to our students.

I also work closely with the Department of Probation to ensure that we are doing our best to serve our most vulnerable youth. We know that youth who for one reason or another have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system have varied needs. I am always working with my team to identify ways to improve the educational system and outcomes for the youth in our juvenile justice facilities. We are continuously reforming and improving our educational model to best serve all of our customers with students always at the center. 

Superintendent Duardo with a young student

UCLA GSEIS:What are the personal qualities that you bring to your job that make you good at it?

Duardo: I think one is a real passion for this work. I bring that passion, and joy, I really think it’s a privilege. I think I’m in a position where I have the opportunity to help our community achieve great gains, on a very large scale. And I take that very seriously. I have a compassion for the population and the people that we’re serving. I come from a strength- based system of belief. I really see strengths in people rather than deficits.  I think I communicate well. I’m good at establishing and maintaining relationships and building those important relationships.  People trust me because, when I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And I follow up.

One of my strengths is my own personal experience. I dropped out of school the first week of ninth grade, the first week of high school. And I never went back. I experienced a lot of hardship, a lot of poverty. I had a child when I was 16 who was born with Spina Bifida, a severe disability. He is going to be 40 years old now. He’s a quadriplegic, but doing very well. So, my life experience has taught me a lot and I think that experience gives me credibility. I know what it’s like when the educational system doesn’t work for you for whatever reason. 

You know, I went to community college for 10 years. I had four children –  one with a severe disability – when I got to UCLA. I had transferred from a community college and all of those struggles, I think, make you really have an understanding of what real life is like and how important getting an education is. I know the difference that it’s made for me and my family and my children. I think it gives me a lot of credibility. I think that people see me as legitimate.

UCLA GSEIS:What happened, what changed you as a person? Was there something that happened that changed your life? 

Duardo:I think it was becoming a parent, having a child with a severe disability and realizing that I didn’t know the difference between a urologist and a neurologist and all of the specialists that were coming to me and telling me that my son would never make it. 

I was trying to understand what his issues were, I realized I needed to go back to school and get an education. And once I got back to school, I loved it. I love learning. It was really hard. School was hard for me. It didn’t come to me easily. But I think, being able to seek out help, asking for tutoring, meeting with my professors, asking for additional support. Just having the tenacity and this mindset that I’ve got that, ‘I’m gonna finish this no matter what.’ I don’t care if my son’s in the hospital. I don’t care if my husband decides to divorce me. I don’t care, no matter what, I’m going to finish school.

When I first got to UCLA, I was in culture shock. I was older than most students. Most of the students were kids that had been at the top of their class. And here I was, coming in after 10 years at a community college to UCLA, and the expectations and the rigor of the work was very difficult. But UCLA helped me improve my writing skills and my academic skills. It also taught me that, even though things are very, very hard, you can still get it done. My undergrad was the hardest thing I ever experienced. It was harder than my master’s program or even the doctorate program. I think it really taught me and gave me confidence in myself, realizing when I was getting good grades that it wasn’t impossible and that I had a lot of support. The people at UCLA, the professors, the teaching assistants, would really work with me and spend time with me.

UCLA GSEIS:What are the things that happened that led to this job? What kinds of things did you learn that helped you develop leadership skills? 

Duardo:You know, a lot of what I learned, I learned from the ten years I spent working at a nonprofit organization. I worked for the LA Commission on Assault Against Women. When you work for a nonprofit, there are not a lot of frills and you have to do everything. You are on your own. 

I worked for an amazing woman, Patty Giggans, who is still at that organization, although they have changed the name to Peace over Violence. She was a very strong mentor.  

I started off as a volunteer for their rape and battering hotline because they needed Spanish speaking counselors. I was there a week and she offered me a job. I was a high school dropout. I didn’t have any degrees. And Patty gave me the position. She placed me as a coordinator for their child abuse prevention program.

She gave me an opportunity. I was going into schools in LAUSD and coordinating a program that was teaching child abuse prevention to students, parents and faculty. She just had confidence in me and said, “You can do this,” and she would push me. I had to do a lot of public speaking. I had to learn how to work within an educational system that I wasn’t familiar with. But I was surrounded by a strong group of women, feminists who empowered me and helped me to see that I could do whatever I wanted to do. That was really the foundation that taught me how to be a professional woman.

After I finished my masters in social work at UCLA, I had an internship at a school and I ended up going into education. I started off as a counselor. But, I think that I’ve always had, and I don’t know where it comes from, always been wanting to get things accomplished. I was always very proactive.  My family calls me chop-chop. Like, let’s get moving, let’s get going, let’s take action. Let’s not sit around and talk, let’s get things done. 

I started doing a lot of that and people realized I was a person that took my work seriously and would get things done. I started off as a counselor. And in two years, I was promoted to be an administrator. It seemed like even though I went into it being a social worker, for some reason I always got pushed more to the macro side, looking ahead and thinking what types of services, what type of systems, what do we need to do in order to improve.  So that just led me into administration, which eventually led me to having positions that were district-wide leadership. 

I became the administrator for the Los Angeles Unified School District in charge of their healthy start programs, and I just kept moving up into roles of leadership. When I left I was the executive director of student health and human services. In that position I over saw pretty much everything outside of instruction — attendance, mental health, drop-out prevention, nurses, counselors, programs for foster youth, homeless youth, adjudicated youth — really making sure that there were services available throughout the District to address some of the barriers that children faced that were impeding their ability to learn.

UCLA GSEIS:Why do you think you were selected for these positions?

Duardo:I think I established a reputation as someone that works hard, that was a good communicator, and that was very passionate about the work and could get things done. And I think people would see me as someone they wanted to lead programs because they knew that if I was involved in it, it would probably be successful.

UCLA GSEIS:Are there other qualities that have helped you, that you think are important for leadership?

Duardo:It has to be genuine. And the other thing is really having empathy, caring about people, wanting to see better outcomes for both your employees and the people that you’re serving. And just seeing people as people, whether it’s somebody who’s cleaning the bathrooms or the mayor of LA, I am respectful. I think everybody adds value. I really genuinely care about people. 

And I think for women, and I’ve had to do a lot of work on this, just having the right mindset, not letting my fears, and we all have fears, but not allowing my fears to direct where I’m going. Being able to hear that little, negative chatter in my mind of, you know, you’re not smart enough, you’re a dropout, but not letting those fears or that negative talk interfere with the work that needs to get done. And reminding myself when I start hearing that chatter, to say, ‘That’s nonsense, and I’m not going to buy into that.’ 

UCLA GSEIS:Why do you think it’s important that women play leadership roles in education and other fields?

Duardo:I think that equity is important across the board, whether it’s race, language, sexual orientation, or gender.  And, diversity is critical. When you have a diverse group, you have different views, different perspectives, different styles of doing things, and it just creates a stronger team. I think it’s especially important in education that we have a diversity of leaders.  There is definitely a need for women to play an active role in that and to visually show that women can do this job just as well as men.

UCLA GSEIS:Do you think that women offer a different perspective for leadership, some different insights?

Duardo:I’m not sure. There is a lot of research and questions about gender issues and stereotypes. So, I don’t know if it’s just from learned behavior or whatever, but I think that women oftentimes are more democratic or more likely to believe in a shared leadership style. I think often women are better communicators, more personable, or at least willing to show more compassion and empathy and even vulnerability. In my experience working with women, there is more nurturing behavior, it’s more inclusive. There is not such a concern about having power, but sharing some of that power.

UCLA GSEIS:Do you think women face different personal and professional challenges in becoming leaders?

Duardo:I think we still face that glass ceiling. The challenge that is in other professions, it’s the same in education. Overwhelmingly, the leadership in education is male.  When you look at superintendents or board members, they are predominantly male. If you look at the county level, in California there are 58 counties and 58 county superintendents and I think only about 12 percent are women.

I think an issue that often comes up for women is, how do you do it all? How do you balance your professional life and your home life and raising children and being a wife and still maintain a professional position? Yet men are never asked that. You know, men are married and they have children and they have lives, but they usually are never asked, how do you find that balance? 

People still see women in a role that it’s more difficult for them because they have so much on their plate. There are still sexist attitudes and beliefs out there. Many people – including women, which is part of the problem – have more confidence in a male as a leader rather than a woman because it’s just been ingrained in them to think that men know better than women, that men are better leaders. So, when women are in leadership positions, we really have to demonstrate that we can do this. And that’s not just in education, its everywhere. 

UCLA GSEIS:Do you have advice for women who are taking on new roles in leadership or seeking leadership positions?

Duardo:One is just do your job and do it well, and not think so much about wanting to be promoted. If you’re really good at what you’re doing and you enjoy it, and you do it well, people will take notice. 

I think you do need to let people know of your interest though. I think women need to seize opportunities, and not stop themselves from advancing. I think that’s part of the problem.  A lot of times, women don’t take advantage of opportunities because we’re afraid or we have self-doubt. I think that we really need to make sure that we’re not stopping ourselves from advancing.

I also think it’s always a good idea to have a mentor or to have some network of support people that you can talk to that can help promote you. And you know, there is nothing wrong with asking someone in a higher position to tell you how they got there, to give you some advice or let them know that you’re interested in doing a similar job.

UCLA GSEIS:You seem to draw on your experiences and a sense of personal resilience. How can other women develop the skills they need and their own personal resilience?

Duardo:I think it just takes practice. I think part of it is just the experience itself, learning from mistakes, reflecting back on ‘how could I have done this differently?’ Working and talking with a mentor or someone to learn from, asking, ‘why didn’t this work, what could I have done differently?’ Looking at failed experiences and, rather than thinking of it as like, ‘oh, I failed at this, I can’t do this,’ thinking instead, ‘okay, where did it go wrong and how can I improve upon it? What do I need to do?’ I think practice is a big one.

I think it’s also important to work on mindset, you know, fighting the insecurities, the fears, the negative thoughts, and just taking some risks. Just going out there and saying, you know what, ‘I might not be perfect,’ and not being so self-critical. Allow yourself some space to fail and learn and to just realize that, being a leader or doing anything – it takes some learning and it takes the time and it takes some experience. Try not to beat yourself up if you make a bit of a mistake, try not to overthink everything. I think a lot of times people just overthink every single thing and it’s like, you know what, just go for it. Don’t worry so much that you won’t be good at it. Give yourself the opportunity to experience it and, take a little bit of risk and, enjoy it, find the joy in it. If you’re not having fun, then you’re not going to be good at what you’re doing. If you’re not feeling excited about the work, then do something that will excite you. Because I don’t think you can be successful at something that you don’t like.

UCLA GSEIS: How important is it for woman to have a public voice, to play a public role in leadership?  And how do you approach that challenge?

I think it’s absolutely critical that women are out there in the public and that we have a voice. And for me personally, it was a very big deal. Growing up my father didn’t encourage me to have a voice or an opinion because I was a girl. My father is a Mexican immigrant and his cultural mindset and life experiences made him see things through a “machista” perspective, which meant our home was dominated by the male voice and experience. Women were expected to behave in a certain way and I really felt like I didn’t have a voice. And so for me, as I got older it was just so important for me. And when it comes to education, people need to know and see women in these roles.  We have the opportunity to speak our minds and to share our experiences and to model what it is to be a strong leader.

I do a lot of public speaking. I can’t tell you how often people ask me to come out and speak. Mostly I think because people find my story interesting. It’s not every day that you have a high school dropout end up becoming a top leader in education in L.A.  I think it’s important. I think people need to see that women can be strong models. We need to be out there in the public to show a different perspective. 

UCLA GSEIS:Do you think women have a different perspective to offer? 

Duardo: I think that sometimes women come to things looking at the big picture and sometimes with stronger compassion and care, especially as it relates to children and families.  I think that women can communicate differently. I obviously can’t speak for all women, but at least for me, I’m not afraid to show a level of vulnerability and the need to share leadership, to acknowledge that no one person has all of the answers, that we really need to have teams surrounding us that can bring different skillsets to improve the way we work. And I think that women can get a lot accomplished because of our passion and our desire to see a better world and a better place. Not that men don’t have that, but I think they demonstrate it differently.

UCLA GSEIS:Are there other reasons that more women don’t pursue jobs as superintendents or other top jobs in education? Do women feel they may lack specific knowledge or skills needed for the job such as finance or systems management?

Duardo:I think people put things in front of themselves as fears.  Things like, “I’m not a strategic thinker, I’m not analytic,’ or ‘those are not my skillsets.’ But really, if you’re a strong leader, you’re going to find people who are going to compliment whatever skills you bring. Everyone has things that they need to improve upon. Nobody brings 100 percent of every skillset to the table. And I think the thing is really, don’t worry about those things. 

If it’s a technical thing, if it’s budget and finance or it’s understanding data or analyzing data, you can bring people on your team that can do that. But you can’t always bring someone who has the passion, the ability to connect, the ability to establish strong relationships, the ability to inspire. And I think that’s one of the key things as a leader.  If you want people to follow you, they have to feel some sense of inspiration of who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish and what your vision is.

And I think if you have all of those things, if you’re visionary, if you’re empathetic, compassionate, and have a strong idea of what you’re hoping to accomplish, some of the other skillsets that you need, you bring people on board who can do those things. And that’s why I’m such a believer in having a strong team because there are absolutely areas that I don’t feel are my strengths. I’m more of a big picture visionary. As for all the details of exactly how this is going to happen, I have someone else to do that, to figure out the details. You don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to be the expert on everything.

UCLA GSEIS: Any final words of advice for those for those that want to be leaders in education?

Duardo: I’d say don’t stop yourself from advancing. Trust that you can do this work. Believe in yourself. Be willing to be yourself. People don’t like fakes or phonies. Follow your gut and work hard. And most importantly, be patient and kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over things that you think you should’ve been done differently.