Leading with Partnership and Compassion: An interview with LA County Office of Education Superintendent Dr. Debra Duardo (Part 2)

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 and to wellbeing. 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. Last week, we heard 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. This week, 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: LACOE works with and supports 80 districts across Los Angeles County ranging from small, rural districts with 80 students all the way to LAUSD with more than 700,000 students. How have you supported those districts in beginning to prepare for reopening schools in the 2020–2021 school year?

DR. DUARDO: Our recovery and reopening strategy has been focused on the premise that we can do more if we partner together. For the first six weeks of this crisis, we had daily phone calls with all 80 superintendents. We used these calls to share critical information, to help align efforts across the county and to give superintendents a safe space to problem solve together and we had upwards of 200 superintendents, cabinet members and district leaders on each call. It has been a great opportunity for us to respond in a comprehensive way. It’s not piecemeal or that everybody’s out there trying to fix everything on their own, but that we’re working in a coordinated manner where we can all support each other. Now we have scaled back to one call a week, but we still see lots of cross-district collaboration and camaraderie in between calls. The superintendents email, call or text each other to share best practices or bounce ideas off one another.

One other strategy was that we made it clear that LACOE was listening to the districts and would be advocating at the state and federal level for the resources, policy changes or waivers that were necessary to serve students. We wanted to make sure our districts knew that they weren’t alone and that we weren’t expecting 80 districts to have to advocate for themselves. LACOE became their voice pushing for resources in LA County through our various departments and our Board of Supervisors or seeking out partnerships, very similar to what we had created with our community schools model, but also at the state and federal level.

EDUCATION FIRST: Speaking of your community schools model, LACOE launched a Community Schools Initiative last year. Can you talk more about what you’ve learned from that initiative and how it has helped you and the county office respond to the crisis in an equitable, holistic way?

DR. DUARDO: The community schools model, I believe, is the answer to just about everything that we’re facing right now, because there is no one organization that can handle this problem alone and we need to be coordinated. We need to have a clear plan on how we’re all going to work together and leverage resources and really rely on one another to get through this. The community schools model lays out a framework for that collaboration.

The message that I’ve been trying to get across to everyone is “How do we work together as a county to make children a priority?” It’s everybody’s responsibility, not just teachers and educators, but everybody’s responsibility to look out for our children. And it is not not just about supporting students during school hours but 24/7. What is going on in their homes? How do we get them food? How do we provide child care? How do we support families who are not familiar with online instruction and get them the support that they need? How do we deal with trauma? How do we address the fears and anxiety that are out there right now? These are not things that should only burden school districts. I am so grateful we already had that framework in place because it is now so much easier for us to reach out to the Department of Child and Family Services or Department of Public Housing, since we already have established partnerships.  

For the districts or leaders who might not have these relationships or partnerships in place, I encourage them to start creating them as soon as possible. You simply cannot run a school district with the limited funding that we have and meet the needs of all our students and families. Until we start getting everybody that has something to contribute working together, we’re never going to meet the needs of our students and families. 

EDUCATION FIRST: At the beginning of this crisis, your Deputy Superintendent Arturo Valdez, commented to our team that you were “running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace.” Now, it’s several months later and the finish line for this marathon keeps getting pushed out further and further. Yet, educators in your office and in the districts and schools and in the partners and the surrounding agencies are still all sprinting. What are you thinking about how to nurture and sustain the people at the center of this work?

DR. DUARDO: Yeah, it’s been hard. My superintendents are all exhausted and I really feel that for many of them this is a no-win situation because no matter what you do, there are going to be a lot of people that are not happy with you. People are writing asking how could we even consider opening schools because we are putting our children in harm’s way. Then, at the same time there are others who say the exact opposite and are demanding for schools to open because they need childcare options. It’s very, very hard for the superintendents. They are dealing with so much uncertainty as things change from day to day, realizing that they couldn’t just have one plan, they had to have multiple plans and they had to have the ability to very quickly toggle back and forth if necessary.

What I always try to do with my own team and with my 80 superintendents is to lead with compassion. Acknowledging them, letting them know how much I care about them, how much I understand the challenges that they’re facing. I want them to know that we’re here to support them. We’re here to find resources for them. We’re not there as a compliance agency who is “out to get them”, but really understanding the challenges that they’re facing and wanting to help them.

EDUCATION FIRST: This has been a really heavy time for all students, but what are the bright spots or opportunities you see from this challenging summer and fall? Where do you think LA County and its students and families will come out stronger?

DR. DUARDO: I think that parents certainly have a new appreciation for their teachers and that relationships between teachers and parents are only getting stronger. Parents are having to provide instruction at home, they’re realizing how difficult it is and are understanding the challenges of teaching. I also think this has proven to many people outside of the education system that districts can’t do this work alone. We need to continue to build and strengthen existing partnerships and need to advocate for more funding for education. Schools are the center of a community. People are looking to schools for emotional support, for their basic needs, their food, their housing, the challenges that they’re facing with mental health issues. I think more and more people are becoming aware that districts are short on money.

I also think that so many people are becoming more comfortable with working and interacting remotely. It has actually resulted in more people accessing the services and supports they need. Some of our districts are very far away and it was hard for people to come in for professional development when it meant driving four hours to get to the LACOE offices. Our programs are available to many more people now that they don’t have to drive in. The same goes for counseling and mental health services. When we closed our schools, we had to provide counseling through telehealth and it’s amazing how many people felt more comfortable participating in a therapeutic environment in their home, like it was less threatening. We’ve improved so much and I think that some of the virtual meetings we have now are even better than in-person meetings. It also was an eye opener for me how well a lot of employees can work from home. We’re getting a lot more done and accomplished during all of this, especially the things that impact children and families. This crisis has made us really get down to the basics, to strengthen our partnerships and to get creative. Moving forward, I am hopeful that we’ll continue to be able to engage with families and students in ways that are more accessible to them and that give them a stronger voice.