Building On A Legacy

Nadia Davis Brings Father's Voice Of Latino Activism to Santa Ana's School Board

Nadia Maria Davis is the last of seven children in her family, but the first to follow her father’s legacy of community activism in Santa Ana.

At 27, she is one of two new members on the Santa Ana Unified School District board. She and John Palacio won the two lead board seats in last November’s election.

What makes her election victory unique is she’s the daughter of the late Wallace R. Davis, one of Santa Ana’s first Latino lawyers who fought for immigrant rights. For his achievements, the school district named an elementary school after him in 1996.

“It’s such an honor to have a school in his name,” said Nadia Davis, also an attorney. “He believed so strongly in his causes.”

In the same spirit, the younger Davis is emerging as a voice for local schools and policy change. Youthful and smart, she also exudes the trademark diplomatic and calm qualities of her father.

Those traits will be key in a school board plagued in past years with political squabbles that have hampered decision-making in Orange County’s largest school district, some observers said.

“Nadia is very level-headed,” said Rob Balen, a former trustee who declined to run for reelection in November because of the fragmented school board. “This board needs that.”

Deep divides surfaced last year when the board wrestled with Proposition 227, the voter-approved initiative that ended bilingual education. Disputes over where to build new schools in an already built-out school district continue to be a contentious matter. And the controversial topic of ethnic balance in school administrations is still raised by some officials and residents.

Davis said she’s ready for the challenge. In the past, she’s been able to get long-standing opponents to work jointly on particular issues. For instance, she organized a benefit dinner last May that drew feuding Republicans and Democrats together to raise money for voter education programs in the Latino community.

But she realizes her new job won’t be easy.

Sworn in as the school board vice president, Davis said she aims to cut through bureaucracy with patience and a no-nonsense approach. As a newcomer, she enters the job with no grudges or history. Instead, she brings to the table her ideas, idealism and a touch of innocence.

Even more, her connections with politicians can help forge legislative change and win the district public and corporate support for scholarships and after-school programs, she said. She’s on a first-name basis with various lawmakers–such as Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), Assemblyman Lou Correa
(D-Anaheim) and state Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Garden Grove)–because of her previous involvement in political campaigns and voter education programs.

Nearly three months into her role as a board member, Davis is determined to raise SAT scores and encourage more high school students to pursue college.

On a recent day, she met with top district officials to present her ideas and to hear theirs. At one meeting, she and a Santa Ana Unified administrator studied reports on the district’s dismal SAT scores. Davis’ eyes widened in astonishment at Santa Ana’s overall verbal score, which was 84 points below last year’s national average.

“Oh, my gosh, I didn’t expect it to be that bad,” Davis said of the results.

As she reviewed the data, she began devising plans to improve student performance. Davis suggested that scholarships and other incentives must be offered to motivate students to make use of the district’s SAT prep courses.

“My idea is to get private businesses to sponsor different high schools, possibly get them to pay for the SAT prep courses, or the test fee if students” reach a certain score on their practice exams, she said.

During that meeting, she jotted notes and listened hard. At one point, she even handed over the phone number of Correa–recently assigned to the Assembly’s education committee–so that the district could contact him on legislative matters.

“I’m very excited about her service as a board member,” Santa Ana Unified Supt. Al Mijares said. “She’s the quintessential figure of the power of education. She’s young. She believes in young people. And she’s demonstrating to them that education makes a difference.”

Davis grew up in Orange County public schools. She earned her bachelor’s in sociology from UCLA and a law degree from Loyola University Law School. Throughout her studies, she lobbied for immigration rights and ethnic studies and helped low-income youth stay in school.

“She’s pursuing the path her father blazed in so many ways,” said Manuel Gomez, UCI vice chancellor of student affairs who also was a longtime friend of Wallace Davis and now is Nadia’s mentor. “She has a similar energy of engaging in Latino issues.”

Likewise, Wally Davis, as her father was fondly known, spent much of his career as an activist attorney to develop voting and educational rights for Latinos.

He successfully argued the landmark 1968 case in the state Supreme Court case that Santa Ana’s then-English-language achievement tests were inappropriate for Spanish-speaking students. The case ended wrongful placement of Latino children in classes for the mentally disabled because they scored poorly on tests written in a language they hadn’t learned.

Wallace Davis died four years ago when Nadia was in law school. The loss made finishing law school difficult, she said. But his achievements also served as a source of inspiration to help her persevere.

“I feel he’s made things happen for me,” she said. “I feel closer to him if I continue his vision.”

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