Dr. Darneika Watson: Making History at GUSD

Dr. Darneika Watson speaks about her journey to the position of superintendent and her aspirations for the school year.
Photo by Eliza PARTIKA

Dr. Darneika Watson keeps memories near as she moves forward as GUSD’s superintendent.


CVW recently sat down with Glendale Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Darneika Watson. She is the first Black female Glendale Unified School District superintendent. That is particularly impressive given the history of Glendale as a “sundown town.”

Sociologist James Loewen described a sundown town as “any organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus ‘all-White’ on purpose.” Loewen, who wrote the book “Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism,” identified more than one hundred sundown towns in California, including Glendale, as written in CVW on Sept. 17, 2020.

In 2020, Glendale City Council voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that acknowledged that Glendale was a sundown town and apologized for the pain it caused in the past.

Anyone who spends even a small amount a time with Watson finds she has a contagious smile, a kind heart, a real focus on hugging and a love for education. Her background is rooted in education; both her mom and dad were educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Their profession was inherited by Watson’s sister and her late twin brother.

“My mother was an educator for [LAUSD]. She retired after 32 years at the same school,” she said. She taught just “about every grade” at Loren Miller Elementary School in LA.

Watson’s dad worked in the field of education for 38 years at LA High School. Coach Watson, as he was known, worked as a teacher, dean of students and football coach.

“Both of them [mom and dad] graduated from Texas College,” Watson said.

Her dad played college football. Her grandmother was very proud of her son and his talents. He was a scholar athlete at the top of his game, she said.

“He was a tremendous athlete,” Watson said.

He played football while serving in the military and then in college. His football career was promising and just as his post-college career appeared to be taking off it was cut short.

“His mom’s house [Watson’s grandma] had been targeted by racially motivated [individuals]. The house was [set afire]. My grandmother was burned, my aunt lost a child to the fire,” she said.

Watson said the story of what her family went through due to this racially charged attack affects her.

“You just think about those times they lived in and what they had experienced,” she said, “and my dad had to be made whole again.”

Even though they, and many others, knew the attack was racially motivated, no one would step up to help. No police investigated.

The family moved to LA around 1969 after her grandmother’s health improved. Watson’s dad was able to go back to playing football but with the passing of time his career path changed.

“It’s disheartening to hear just what hate can do,” Watson said.

But her mom and dad showed her what strength looked like and taught her to keep moving forward. Both parents took their children to their classrooms or onto the football field, and would introduce them to students and colleagues.

“I think that’s what drew us all into our profession,” she said.

At first Watson planned on being a school psychologist but once she taught in a classroom she realized this was where she wanted to be.

The stories of her family’s past were not far from her memory when she was first asked to act as interim GUSD superintendent, and then later was offered the position of superintendent. She did not give an immediate “yes.” There had been a lot of hateful rhetoric at several school board meetings. Watson was serving the district in human resources and was very aware of the issues at the meetings.

Both her parents, who she would automatically go to for advice, had died by the time she was offered the superintendent job. Despite the anger and misinformation that seemed to be spread at every school board meeting, Watson decided it was the right time and the right place for her to make the move to superintendent.

Her history with education and her family’s strength guided her forward. As superintendent she is very active, visiting all schools and focusing on specific classes that highlight the talents of Glendale students. She also has a history as a teacher and administrator of working with parents and students. And she has seen some bad days – some really bad days.

“Maybe I had a bad board meeting or a bad day [but] if I go into a school the next morning I am recharged by the kids,” she said.

She is certain some of the students and parents may not know who she is – though some do – but they all see her smiling and happy.

“And they say, ‘I know you’re here because you care,’” she said. “That is such a wonderful feeling because I do know that those children are counting on me in some way, shape or form.”