Superintendent Interview Series

A Holistic Approach to Supporting the Diverse Needs of Students: A Conversation with Dr. Francisco Durán, Arlington Public Schools


Daybreak Health CEO Alex Alvarado talks to Superintendents from across the country to discuss topics and trends affecting their school communities like chronic absenteeism, student mental health, academic outcomes, and more. These Superintendents represent districts from urban to rural, large to small, and range in their minority enrollment and number of students who are economically disadvantaged. Our goal is to capture different voices and perspectives on the challenges facing our schools today.

Dr. Francisco Durán, the Superintendent of Arlington Public Schools (APS) in Virginia, has recently been reappointed to a second term and shared his deep commitment to student success and well-being. At the heart of Dr. Durán’s mission is the motto, “Meet every student by name, strength, and need.” This encapsulates the dedication of APS to provide personalized support to each student within their diverse community.


Dr. Durán emphasized the importance of maintaining a focus on students as individuals, not as data points. He stressed the need to recognize and leverage students' strengths while addressing their academic needs. “We want to learn what excites our students and what motivates them while at the same time paying attention to their academic needs.” In doing so, APS has implemented systems and structures to better serve its diverse student body.

With students from various linguistic, racial, and socioeconomic backgrounds, Dr. Durán highlighted the importance of acknowledging and addressing the unique needs of each subgroup within their student population. For instance, APS has prioritized support for English language learners, recognizing that their needs vary widely based on factors such as prior education and language proficiency. 


Mental health support is another critical aspect of APS's approach to student well-being. Dr. Durán outlined APS’s multi-tiered system of support that encompasses social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives, intervention counselors, and partnerships with external mental health providers.

There is a spectrum of mental health support that students need. At the tier 1 level, APS is regularly helping students to build resiliency for when they are faced with challenges in life or in school. In tier 2, they offer both onsite and teletherapy services to students to ensure accessibility and give students the opportunity to meet with a therapist that they can relate to and can speak their native language.

The district's tier 3 support includes a partnership with their county government through the Department of Human Services to provide county staff and services in their high school. This helps to break down barriers, particularly for families and students of color who may have a stigma associated with getting mental health support. 

This health crisis is really a crisis. It cannot be just the schools to do that. We've got to get the community involved.”


Dr. Durán shared his perspective on the intersection of student success and mental health. He emphasized the importance of addressing mental health challenges to create an environment conducive to learning. He said, “They're very intertwined. You can’t separate the two because students need to feel safe and welcome. They need to feel that they are in a space where they want—and are able—to learn. Your mind is not going to be focused on academics and instruction when you're dealing with some of the mental health challenges that we see from our students.”

Dr. Durán highlighted the need for community-wide collaboration to support students' holistic well-being, beyond the scope of the school system alone. He noted that, “Oftentimes if a student is in crisis, their family may be in crisis. We need to make sure that we have better access to families.” He talked about the importance of creating and building community which has been harder to do post-pandemic. 

The conversation also touched on another marginalized group, LGBTQ+ students, and APS's commitment to providing them with inclusivity and support. Dr. Durán emphasized the implementation of clear policies and practices to create a safe and welcoming environment for all students, irrespective of gender identity or sexual orientation. “We're an education system. We educate all students who come to our doors who live in our community. Kids can't learn if they don't feel safe, welcome, and validated as who they are as individuals.

In terms of academic success, APS has prioritized foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy. Dr. Durán highlighted a shift towards evidence-based literacy instruction and ongoing assessment to track student growth over time. By focusing on growth rather than proficiency alone, APS aims to ensure that all students make progress academically.

Throughout the interview, he underscored the crucial role of teachers in supporting student well-being and academic success. APS provides professional development and resources to support educators in meeting the diverse needs of their students effectively.

Dr. Durán’s leadership at Arlington Public Schools exemplifies a holistic approach to student success, prioritizing individualized support, mental health, and academic excellence. By fostering a supportive and inclusive environment, APS aims to empower every student to reach their full potential academically, socially, and emotionally.

Downloadable Content

The State of Youth Mental Health & Our Schools

How schools are responding to the rising demand for student mental health services.