Equity, Care and Wellbeing for Two Million Students: An interview with LACOE Superintendent Dr. Debra Duardo (Part 1)

Across the country, education systems leaders are in the middle of an unusually complex summer. Between ongoing pandemic response and the recent groundswell of interest and attention on issues of racial justice, they are dealing with monumental challenges ranging from housing, to food, to safety, to addressing the digital divide—all while trying to ensure that all students receive the education they deserve. We sat down with Dr. Debra Duardo, Superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) to get a sense of what is on her mind as the leader of a regional office of education overseeing 80 school districts and two million students across Los Angeles County. In this first blog of a two part series, we will hear from her about the importance of maintaining LACOE’s commitment to equity, about how the current movement to advance racial justice has shaped her leadership and about how LACOE is listening to and learning from stakeholders amidst these dueling crises. Be on the lookout for our second installment next week, where we will talk about county-wide partnerships, leading with care and wellbeing, and helping teams sustain their efforts. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

EDUCATION FIRST: Although COVID-19 did not create inequity, this crisis has laid bare the structural inequities that are a part of our society’s institutions and systems. Systems leaders like you have been on the forefront addressing an ever rotating set of challenges as new inequities are unearthed. What are the top two to three challenges pertaining to the social, emotional and academic success of students and educators upon returning to school in the fall of 2020? How are you thinking about tackling these issues?

DR. DUARDO: This pandemic has put a spotlight on the fact that there are tremendous disparities in outcomes for children of color and children living in poverty. At LACOE, our first priority over the past several months has been ensuring child wellness. One of the key messages we sent out to our districts was about checking in with our families—letting them know that we cared about them, that we wanted to help them, that we wanted to assess their needs so that we can better support them.

This spring, LACOE trained our counselors to do wellness checks remotely. In some cases, we even scripted out the questions we wanted to ask so that we could find out what they needed and connect that family with the services they needed. They have brought many different issues to our attention. We have found that the parents of many of our students living in poverty are more likely to be essential employees and who do not have the luxury of working from home. We have had to think about how we support those families by providing child care, connecting them with food services or finding creative ways to support learning. We also realized that there was a noticeable decrease in the number of child abuse cases reported this spring. School district employees are mandated reporters and they spend a lot of time with children. How do we protect children and make sure they are safe now that they are at home? 

As I think about the fall, the thing that is top of my mind for me is making sure that we are making connections and developing partnerships with the Department of Children and Family Services and other local government partners to get families the services they need. It is not just ensuring that students are able to receive instruction. It’s about making sure that they’re able to receive food, they’re able to receive child care and that we’re ensuring that they’re safe. We need to work together to ensure that we’re keeping an eye on the children of LA County. 

EDUCATION FIRST: One area where districts have felt pressure during this crisis, but where LACOE has excelled, is in maintaining a concrete commitment to equity. As a leader, how have you been able to maintain this focus amidst this crisis?

DR. DUARDO: We’ve always been about equity; it’s always at the forefront of our mind and has always been a big part of our identity. When you’re in a crisis and you realize that this crisis is having a much more severe impact on children of color, children from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities, it becomes even more important to maintain that priority. We believe that if we help and we problem solve for our impoverished and most disenfranchised children, that we will benefit everyone. That means it is important to prioritize student and staff safety first. We can catch students up in math or reading, but we can’t bring back the dead. I believe it is our job to err on the side of safety and follow the science. Now and going into the fall, we are focused on how to identify the students that are of highest need, on raising funds through our foundation to support our districts and making sure our students and staff are safe.

A concrete example: we had a very serious issue with our students in the juvenile halls and probation camps that were being exposed to COVID-19 and testing positive. LACOE is responsible for these students and for their education so we had to figure out a number of things, including how we would get everybody tested, how we would ensure the safety of our students and our employees, what protocols would we use, how they would access their learning materials. It was a real challenge getting these students connected with online instruction because there are legal restrictions on their access to the internet. We actually had to build out our own learning platform, which we did in a matter of weeks, to comply with these limitations. Chief Technology Officer Greg Lindner and his team were amazing and they built out a platform that  ensured that students had access to online instruction. That is just one example, and there are always going to be challenges. But, we really are committed to making sure that we’re starting where the need is greatest.

EDUCATION FIRST: In addition to the pandemic, students and families are also dealing with the effects of systemic racism and our entire country is in a moment of increased consciousness about racial justice. Can you talk about what that means for you as an organization for the county office?

DR. DUARDO: So the pandemic was one thing, of course, but we very quickly realized that we couldn’t even talk about the pandemic without addressing all of the raw emotions—all of the anger and frustration that people were experiencing—as a result of systemic racism. First of all, it’s acknowledging and reminding people that these disparities have existed long before the pandemic. We seem to have accepted the fact that there’s this huge opportunity gap that results in children of color being far behind their peers. When you look at anywhere in the country, people of color are most negatively impacted across the board. When you look at housing, people of color are more likely to be experiencing homelessness. When you look at the health care system, people of color are more likely to have undiagnosed health conditions or disorders. And that’s not just by chance; it’s because that’s the way we’ve built our systems. It has almost become normal and accepted, but it is important to really remind people that this is not okay.

The pandemic has really proven how much these issues are systemic. When we talk with our superintendents, we talk about how now is the opportunity for us to think about how we can make change in the system itself. I think it helps us look at why we see disparate educational outcomes and see that we need to address the underlying poverty and racism in order to see all students do well. And when we do, not only will the students of color benefit, but all students will benefit. That’s kind of the message we’re trying to get across, when you help your students with the highest need and when you address racial justice, that’s going to benefit everyone. 

EDUCATION FIRST: Another area where many systems leaders have experienced tension is engaging authentically with their stakeholders and community on both of these issues. Describe how LACOE has engaged with educators, students, families and caregivers and other stakeholders over the past several months. How have they shaped the way you lead the county?

DR. DUARDO: Obviously everything has to be done remotely where we’re not endangering people and bringing people in physically, but we have had a great deal of communications efforts reaching out and creating forums where people can talk and connect. LACOE has hosted town hall meetings, webinars, panels with student participants. I recently facilitated a student town hall and it was really fascinating. We had the opportunity to hear from our youth about how this pandemic is impacting them. What are the challenges? What are the positive things? What they needed? What they wanted? They got to really share their experiences and show us how this was impacting people in a different way and tell us what they wanted from us.

The biggest message that I’ve heard loud and clear is they want people to care about them. They want people to understand their circumstances and they want to feel cared for and listened to; so that’s what we’ve said all along. Everybody is going through a lot of trauma right now. Everyone’s world has been turned upside down. All the normalcy and the structure that we were all used to is out the window. And every day there’s so much uncertainty, fear and confusion because there’s so much misinformation out there. I’d say if anything you have to over communicate, you have to bring people together. You have to allow people to have a voice in coming up with solutions and especially the people that are most affected. 

EDUCATION FIRST: LACOE established the Greater LA Education Foundation just a few months before this crisis started. The foundation’s mission is to advance deeper collaboration between schools and communities to disrupt inequity and meet the needs of today’s diverse learners across Los Angeles County. How has having a foundation that is able to be nimble and is aligned with LACOE’s work allowed you to connect with the business community, philanthropic community and other partners throughout the county during this crisis? How do you think that will help set you up for greater success as schools start to reopen?

DR. DUARDO: Our timing couldn’t have been any better developing this foundation! The foundation was developed with the focus of making sure that we were looking at equity throughout LA County—for all of our districts and all of our students—and it has jumped in to address the problems as they arise. It was able to, in a very short period, raise over two million dollars to purchase devices and WiFi for students who needed it. Now, the foundation is leading development of a summer institute to address the loss of learning for children who weren’t able to connect immediately with online learning this spring. The foundation has the flexibility to always be looking at equity, thinking about what the next need is and what the next solution might be.

We think this is the chance for us to look at the old systems and say we’re not going back to the old way. Now we have this distance learning and we’ve been able to reduce that digital divide, which is wonderful. How can we use that to supplement their instruction? How can we use this distance learning as a way where we’re going to ensure that all children have access to the highest quality teachers? We’re looking at this in a very different way and saying we don’t want to go back to the old normal. We want to use this crisis as a way to implement real change.