It was more than being a teenage mother, a life-altering event in itself.
It was more than having a child barely after being allowed to have a driver’s license.
It was more than blinking hard, realizing you’re 15, a high school dropout, married, working at Kentucky Fried Chicken and soon thereafter, holding a baby in your arms.
It was the moments after, the days and weeks when the teenage Debra Duardo was standing there and a revolving door of specialists were telling her things she couldn’t comprehend.
That the child in her arms was born with a bubble on his back, identified as spina bifida, and would need nearly a dozen surgeries in his first year of life.
Somewhere between that joy of a baby and the agony of learning the infant had a neural tube defect, Debra Duardo needed to make another life-changing decision.
Hadn’t she made enough already?
The Los Angeles Unified School District took away the interim portion of Duardo’s title last week, completing a meteoric rise where she is now the Executive Director of Health and Human Services.
Hired directly out of her internship through the UCLA Luskin School’s Social Welfare department, Duardo began her career at Wilson High in Los Angeles as a Pupil Services and Attendance Counselor. The scope of the job focused on working with students who had attendance problems.
It would seem that would be a great fit for Duardo, who, as a teenager, attended high school for a week before deciding that earning money at Kentucky Fried Chicken was more important than an education.
But she was far from coming full circle.
Between her first position and her current one, Duardo has mostly worked with students who have attendance problems. In between, though, she served as the Assistant Principal of Le Conte Middle School — the same middle school she attended shortly before dropping out of high school for good.
“When you’re in a school as an assistant principal, you’re running the intervention program and Saturday school,” Duardo said. “You’re helping students and families who are under-represented and who are really struggling. You’re a counselor and you’re doing home visits and you truly understand that some families are living in garages without electricity or two entire families are living together.”
Several years later, Duardo was named the Director of Dropout Prevention and Recovery, something she could truly relate to.
“I think that’s my passion because I experienced it,” said Duardo, who wrote grants to bring back more than $12 million to maintain the Diploma Project, a program that places social workers at schools with high dropout rates to help bring back students to the classroom. “There are some, who are like me, and didn’t think school was interesting. Others drop out because they’re really smart and bored, some have issues with substance abuse or violence, or they have kids of their own.
“I wanted to touch students and tell them the only way to get ahead is to get an education.”
Bruce, the oldest of Duardo’s four children, is 33 years old now and lives independently. This is a major achievement, since the spina bifida left him a quadriplegic despite 10 operations before his first birthday.
It was his birth defect that forced Duardo to make that paramount life-changing decision. She needed an education.
“I was a teen mom and I was in the hospital and all these specialized doctors kept coming to see me,” Duardo said. “I didn’t understand everything they were saying and I thought ‘This child will have a lot of needs, I need an education.’”
And, it was the blessing of a newborn — not the meager paycheck from a fast food restaurant — that pushed Duardo to a classroom.
It took Duardo a decade to finish her high school education through Los Angeles City College.
Why so long?
Well, she was working, having given up frying the colonel’s chicken and taking a job with the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. She also had three more children with her husband, after they had eloped to Las Vegas when she was 15 and he was 19. By the time she finished, she applied to two schools — Cal State Los Angeles and UCLA.
“It was equidistant from where we lived,” she explained.
When she was accepted to attend class in Westwood, she was pleased. But it didn’t garner the I’m-a-high-school-dropout-and-now-I’m-going-to-a-premier-university excitement one would expect.
“I thought anybody who applied got in,” she says now, laughing at her naivety.
During her undergraduate years as a Chicano/a Studies and Women’s Studies double-major, Duardo continued to think of the women she came across at the Commission, women who were also social workers. She decided that the education she had put off for so long needed to continue.
She enrolled in UCLA Luskin’s Social Welfare program in 1994 and an internship led to her first job as an attendance counselor with LAUSD.
This is a spring full of milestones for Durado: She is on track to earn her doctorate from UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and this past weekend she was named UCLA Luskin’s Department of Social Welfare Joseph A. Nunn Alumna of the Year, a highlight that earned her accolades across LAUSD.
In her current role she oversees a vast amount of projects — from student medical services, to nursing, mental health, pupil services and dropout education, among others — while also serving on the City of Los Angeles Commission of Children and Families, a designation given her by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
While she has reason to be amazed at her personal and professional journey, Duardo is happiest about something that won’t earn her a plaque.
“I raised four amazing human beings who are following their love,” she said. “They are good people who are very social and justice conscious.”
And, obviously, educated. They’re her “Killer B’s,” as she refers to them.
Following Bruce is Brandon, who graduated from Georgetown with a Master’s degree in sports management so he could create sports programs for physically disabled youth. The kind of programs his older brother could have participated in, had they previously existed.
Beverly earned her undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley and is now in a nursing program at Marymount University in Virginia. The youngest, Bianca, is in Israel on a five-month internship supporting girls who were sexually assaulted.
Duardo has a simple message:
“If I can do it with four kids, then anyone can do it.”
The best part of her creed is that she’s putting her past into someone else’s future. Working with Los Angeles-area teens to promote the benefits of an education, Duardo can always dip into her tale to get a message across.
“That continues to be my passion, to get kids to understand that they’re entitled to that education,” Duardo said. “When a student drops out of school, it affects all of us as a community because they’re more likely to be in poverty or depend on welfare. They’re more likely to be involved in criminal activities.
“I wish someone had been there to help explain what school is all about, and how much a diploma would mean to my future. That experience informs my work every day — I want to make sure every at-risk student in our district has the opportunity I never had.”