“I told myself I’m not crying today,” outgoing Harding University Partnership school principal Vanesha Davis told parents and children at yesterday’s Top Scholars award ceremony. “I just want to thank everybody for the support I’ve received the last few years,” she said as the eyes of parents misted up across the school’s auditorium.

If parents weren’t crying for Davis — or the awards their children were receiving for academic performance, integrity, attendance, improvement, and communication — they may have been crying for the fact that next fall, their school will have its fourth principal in three years. The timing is especially difficult because California schools will be transitioning to the new Common Core State Standards while Harding is still in the early stages of teaching the inquiry-based International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Davis’s predecessor was removed after only a few months on the job when he was involved in an incident that led to the involvement of law enforcement (although no charges were ever filed), but parents and teachers questioned his competence from day one. It seemed that this horrible episode may have undone the seven years of incremental progress at the school under the helm of Sally Kingston, a visionary if divisive leader who implemented several new programs. Not all of them stuck, but a partnership with UCSB Gevirtz Graduate School of Education and the IB curriculum are enduring.

Davis had been an assistant principal in the district for only two weeks when she was asked to take over Harding on an interim basis before winning the job outright. “She’s better than anything we ever expected, and I’m so sick that Santa Barbara is going to lose her,” said Ellen Bialis, a former Harding parent and longtime donor to the Gevirtz School and Harding.

A native of Watts, Davis was conspicuously the one of the only minority elementary school principal in a district that is roughly two-thirds minority. A Spanish major at UC Irvine before earning her education credentials, she honed her fluency in the language with a year abroad in Argentina. Before coming to Santa Barbara, she worked in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Davis told The Santa Barbara Independent that she is returning to L.A. to be with her family. She owns a home in Los Angeles and reportedly returned there most weekends. Still, some are wondering why she would resign her position without another job lined up.

“It was her decision,” said Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Emilio Handall. “We would love to retain her. It was quite a shock to the district that she would resign her position,” he said. Handall added that the district would take her back if she changed her mind.

Molly Presser, who taught at Harding for 23 years and was recruited by Davis to volunteer this year, praised Davis for her hands-on style. A Harding employee who did not want her name to appear in print described Davis as “very peaceful, even-keeled with a nice, calm demeanor.”

Sal Güereña, the executive director of Padres Unidos, a nonprofit that advocates for equity in education, said that Latino parents at Harding admired Davis. “I really liked Vanesha, too,” he wrote in an email. “She seemed to be an excellent principal.”

Jane Close Conoley, the dean of the Gevirtz School (who is leaving to become president of Cal State University Long Beach), said, “We’ve been delighted with the partnership with Vanesha Davis. We feel like we continue to do good things for the kids there. We felt like she was a very strong principal, and we hate to see her go.”

Davis is still committed to overseeing a summer enrichment program at UCSB for Harding students.

This story was amended on June 9, 2014 to reflect that Davis is not the only minority elementary school principal.


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