There couldn’t possibly be a more apt choice to run the Los Angeles County Office of Education, an agency overseeing among other groups, teen inmates and thousands of disabled students, than a high school dropout and mom of a child with a disability.
Tuesday, Debra Duardo – a daughter of Mexican immigrants who dropped out of Hollywood High after a week to work at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, eloped to Las Vegas and gave birth to her first son at 15 – will become the top education official for Los Angeles County.
Duardo’s son was born with spina bifida. She has said it was becoming the mother of a child with special needs that inspired her to embark on an educational transformation.
It would take Duardo, now 53, ten years to complete high school, but in the end she earned a bachelor’s degree, a masters and a doctorate from UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies.
A career administrator, she was hired by the behemoth L.A. Unified School District directly out of graduate school and has worked there for more than two decades, rising to become the the student health and human services division at the second-largest school district in the nation.
Duardo has spent her entire career focused on at-risk and troubled students.
In 2006, she inaugurated the Diploma Project, under then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, at a time when the district was facing dropout rates well above the average in the state. She made it her mission to turn those rates around.
Duardo told the Los Angeles Times that in order to help students, you must involve families, government agencies and the community.
“We fought really hard to make sure that students in foster care are getting support,” Duardo said. “We worked hard for data sharing with county children’s services so that we know when a child is in foster care. They tell us which students are taken out of a home, when a case is opened, and we give them the child’s enrollment history, grades, attendance.”
She added, “We’re all serving the same children and families, and we can all do a lot better if we work together.”
Today, Bruce, the oldest of Duardo’s four children, is 33 and lives independently – a major accomplishment, since the spina bifida left him a quadriplegic despite 10 operations before his first birthday.
Her other son, Brandon, graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in sports management, her daughter Beverly earned an undergraduate degree from Berkeley, and her daughter Bianca spent time in Israel on an internship supporting girls who have been sexually assaulted.
Duardo told UCLA Ampersand, “If I can do it with four kids, anyone can do it.”