Debra Duardo, M.S.W., Ed.D.
An unrelenting advocate for students and families, Dr. Debra Duardo serves as the Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools. She leads the nation's largest regional education agency, which oversees 80 K-12 school districts that serve 1.3 million students across the country's most populous and diverse county.
Since her appointment by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors in 2016, Dr. Duardo has focused on ensuring educational equity and access for all students; supporting at-promise students and their families to break down barriers; and providing the leadership and support superintendents and administrators need to help our school communities learn, grow and thrive.
In her 30-year career in education, Dr. Duardo leads with a fierce passion for supporting students at every crossroad in their educational journey. Rooted in her own life experience as a teen mom and high school dropout, she knows all too well the roadblocks students face and has dedicated her life’s work to find alternative pathways to meet students where they are. Knowing the life-changing power of an education first-hand, Dr. Duardo works every day to ensure all students in L.A. County receive an education in a safe, caring environment for success in college and careers.
In 2023, Dr. Duardo was awarded the prestigious Harold W. McGraw, Jr. Prize in Education for her groundbreaking work in pre-K–12 classrooms and her achievements in making LACOE the premier hub of innovation in California’s efforts to transform education through a whole-child, whole-family approach.
Dr. Duardo 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.
Dr. Debra Duardo’s journey as the top education leader of Los Angeles County starts in the working class community of Pico-Union near downtown Los Angeles...
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she was one of five siblings in a household filled with love and support. Her father was a dishwasher and her mother was a waitress. She remembers enjoying her elementary and middle school days…but the transition from middle to high school was challenging. As a questioning ninth grader, she felt disconnected from school and quickly lost interest. At the time, not understanding the importance of school, she dropped out of high school to get a full-time job so she could afford the things her family could not provide.
The turning point in her life came at 16 when her first child, Bruce, was born with spina bifida, requiring 10 operations in his first year of life. With so many doctors and medical professionals around her trying to explain what was happening, what he needed, she knew she needed to know more…not only to better understand what was being said but to be a better parent to her child. The road back to her education wasn’t an easy one for the young wife and parent. Driven by a new purpose, she took classes at Los Angeles Community College while working full time and taking care of Bruce and her other three children.
It took 10 years for her to get enough credits to transfer to UCLA. In the end, Dr. Duardo earned her bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and Chicana/o studies, her Master of Social Welfare degree specializing in school social work, and a doctoral degree from the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, all from UCLA.
Dr. Debra Duardo wished there had been an adult in her life who explained why school was so important, and how she could eventually go on to college and have a career...
That was all foreign to her at the time, seemingly out of reach for then 15-year-old Debra who dropped out of high school. As fate would have it, Dr. Duardo became that very adult she wished she had and now offers that guidance and support to others.
Dr. Duardo’s 30-year career in education started shortly after graduating with her master’s in social work. During her MSW internship, she was placed at a school working with students and families very similar to hers growing up. Many were from working-class families, struggling with life’s events -- students who were young parents, those who needed to work to support their family, students staying home to take care of relatives, families going through a divorce, poverty, homelessness -- barriers preventing these students from learning. Starting out as a Pupil Service and Attendance Counselor for the Los Angeles Unified School District, she worked directly with students who were at the risk of not finishing or had already dropped out, finding relevant ways to re-engage them.
For two decades, Dr. Duardo served the students and families of the nation’s second largest school district, always focused on what was best for their mental, social, emotional and physical wellbeing. As Executive Director of Student Health and Human Services for LAUSD, Dr. Duardo oversaw programs designed to address barriers to student success, leading to an increase in attendance and graduation rates and a decrease in dropout rates across the district. During her tenure, L.A. Unified implemented effective dropout prevention strategies; formed critical partnerships with the City of Los Angeles to create youth and family resource centers; collaborated with the Los Angeles Police Department and School Police Department to ensure truant students did not receive citations and instead re-engaged in school; and developed data-sharing processes and agreements with the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Families Services to better support students in foster care.
Previous to her time at LAUSD, Dr. Duardo also worked at the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women for 10 years. Now, as superintendent of schools, she centers her support to school districts on developing strong and lasting partnerships with all stakeholders that provide services and resources to families in L.A. County communities. She has effectively rallied County departments, such as the Departments of Public Health, Mental Health, Social Services, Parks and Recreation, Libraries, Children and Families Services, and Probation, to collaborate and coordinate efforts to serve students and families better. Recently, she served as President of the California County Superintendents, helping to elevate the needs of L.A. County students' to our state and federal departments and legislators.
The 2022-2025 Strategic Plan serves as a roadmap towards LACOE's future growth and success over the next few years. LACOE has done intentional planning using data to prioritize its student-centered supports and ensure the needs and assets of schools communities are met. Under the leadership of Dr. Duardo, LACOE will move forward boldly and courageously to continue to create meaningful change for L.A. County students and families.
During Dr. Duardo’s tenure, LACOE rebranded its philanthropic arm to become the Greater Los Angeles Education Foundation. Through an extensive community engagement process, strategies and investment areas were developed to address the needs of today’s diverse learners. Greater L.A. understands donor engagement, data-driven decision-making and the landscape of K-12 public education to help expand LACOE’s impact. Establishing relationships with significant and influential partners and funders, Greater L.A. Foundation has made considerable progress to secure funding support to districts.
A social worker at heart, Dr. Duardo’s has always focused on the mental, social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students to ensure all learners show up to school every day, ready to learn. Prioritizing the wellbeing of students and staff, LACOE is committed to creating a sense of belonging both in their classrooms and in the workplace. Introduced in 2021, a Chief of Wellbeing and Support Services was brought on to integrate and enhance strategies that support and protect the mental, social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students and staff. This new executive cabinet position focuses on building bridges with schools and partners to implement new and innovative initiatives to support the whole family and child.
Community Schools Initiative
Tackling the persistent educational inequities in school communities, Dr. Duardo spearheaded an unprecedented partnership with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, other agencies, and school districts to promote the Community Schools model across the region. With 16 high schools across L.A. County implementing this learning model, LACOE's Community Schools Initiative enriches the learning experience by caring for the social and emotional well-being, transforming the school into a community hub for students and their families.
Superintendent Student Advisory Council
Fostering a student-centered culture at LACOE, Dr. Duardo created the first-ever L.A. County Superintendent Student Advisory Council elevating student voices to shape conversations about education and youth development. Through the Student Advisory Council, high school students throughout LA County share feedback, experiences, and perspectives on various issues affecting schools and communities directly with the superintendent of schools. By prioritizing student voices and engagement, LACOE can deliver the educational outcomes students deserve.
Dr. Duardo has dedicated her career to providing educational equity for all. From her own life experiences as a former high school dropout and young mother to the countless families she's served for nearly four decades, Dr. Duardo strives to provide the programs and supports students and their families need -- in and out of the classroom. She believes nothing should stop a student from reaching their goals as long as they have the support from caring adults in their lives.