Vanesha Davis had been in Santa Barbara for two weeks when she was suddenly asked to take over as principal of Harding University Partnership School this November. She did a good enough job that before the school year ended, she was named the Westside elementary school’s permanent leader.

With 80 percent of its students English-language learners and 100 percent qualifying for free or reduced lunches, the school is as challenging a workplace as it is innovative. The epicenter of Westside THRIVE, a nonprofit-fueled initiative to close the resource gap ​— ​and, therefore, the achievement gap ​— ​between poor and middle-class kids, Harding is also in its first year officially teaching the inquiry-based International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum.

The campus had taken some strides toward shedding its image as a chronically underperforming white-flight school when its new principal was removed last fall after an incident that resulted in him being reported to authorities for child abuse. (No charges were ever filed.) That’s when Davis had her number called. If she has been overwhelmed by stepping into this cauldron of challenging circumstances, one could never tell. A Lakers fan, Davis is also a big fan of former coach Phil Jackson’s leadership style. Nicknamed the Zen Master, Jackson rarely lost his placid demeanor, even among the rages of a hotly contested game.

A native of Watts, a Spanish speaker, and an aspiring interpreter/translator before getting bit by the teaching bug, Davis worked her way from teacher’s assistant to administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. It’s nice, she said, coming to the smaller and more personable Santa Barbara district where she isn’t just “an employee number” and she can get to know all of her colleagues. Despite the fact that this is the first full week of summer vacation, she was well into her workday when The Santa Barbara Independent caught up with her at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday morning. Next year will be her first full one as principal and the first in which California schools must teach to the new Common Core State standards. Because there is much overlap between the Common Core and IB goals, she said, “I think we are on the right track.”


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