Deep Dive: Getting to know OPUSD’s new Superintendent

Chase Willet sits down with new OPUSD Superintendent, Dr. Jeff Davis, to talk about the upcoming school year, his hobbies, and much more.

Calderon: Hello and welcome to deep dive. My name is Daisy and today our guest is our new superintendent of the Oak Park Unified School District, Dr. Jeff Davis. 

Willet: Before you start, may I ask that you spell your name and your title? 

Davis: Dr. Jeff Davis. J-E-F-F D-A-V-I-S, Superintendent of Schools Oak Park Unified School District starting July 1.

Willet: Just kind of starting off, is there anything that you want people to know about yourself, like interests or anything? That’s like an icebreaker question, basically.

Davis: Absolutely, absolutely you know, superintendents are people too. And so I think it’s really important to know about my family. I think it’s really important to know that I spent a lot of time with them. I wish I had more time to spend with my one daughter Paige – I have two daughters and my daughter Paige lives in Evansville, Indiana, so I wish I had more time to spend with her, but I do get to spend a lot of time with my other two children that are here, Jenna and Matt. Jenna is a counselor at Los Rios Middle School Valley Unified School District. And Matt is a counselor at Wayne High School in the Ventura district. Paige is a professional photographer in Evansville, Indiana.

She does other things too, but really professional photography, there’s and my wife Laurie, who is just the love of my life. She is the principal at Weathersfield Elementary School in Conejo Valley Unified School District. Yeah, so we’ve lived in Thousand Oaks now for close to 11 years. So, you know, I love being part of Thousand Oaks – Oak Park – Westlake. You know our community, we just think it’s an amazing place to live.

Davis: My wife actually lived here previously for a handful of years back when Matt and Jenna were younger, when they were just young kids. So, she always felt the pull to come back here. We’re very excited we’re back here, so I spent a lot of time with my family. We do a lot of things. We love going to the beach, we love hanging out at the beach, love the water, we’re hoping one day to be able to spend more time at the beach with the water and all that. We do a lot of things in regular non-COVID times, go to a lot of movies that we love. We used to go to a lot of concerts and stuff but then COVID hit really hard. If you saw my playlist you would wonder like, “who is this person?”, because there’s jazz from Robbie Coltrane, the Rolling Stones, there’s hip hop, there’s even classical music. I mean, there are so many different things on my playlist that just kind of tell us a little bit about me. I’m really into a lot of different things. I love sports — it really doesn’t matter what sport, I love them all. And it doesn’t matter if they’re popular sports, like baseball, football, basketball, hockey, soccer, but I like everything. Even, you know, lifetime recreational sports. So I love that. 

Davis: We love going to plays, we love that. My wife likes reading — I like reading she likes [reading] to an incredible level. But I am a big John Grisham fan. I love his books and other people too, but I just think I’ve read pretty much every version of his books, and when I taught, I taught U.S. history and taught social science, English, and I taught journalism, and I’m a former journalism adviser.  I just love history, I’m a big history buff, and I’m starting to get more into British history. The Crown on Netflix has sort of piqued my curiosity into British history.

Willet: What drew you to Oak Park School District?

Davis: Oak Park is a place I’ve always looked at, when I worked in Kenya Valley for seven years as director of the high schools and the middle schools. And I always looked at Oak Park, the academics are amazing, performing arts are amazing, the athletics are amazing. I always heard there are great teachers here, that kind of thing. I was always drawn to it. I have a lot of friends I grew up within the West San Fernando Valley who moved out here and have raised their families, and they always raved about the schools, and they always just talked about our incredible school district. And some of them still have students here, some of them have students who have graduated. Now what’s happening is some of the students that I taught when I was a teacher at El Camino Real High School have moved out here, and they’re raising their children here, and their children are in the schools here. So I always looked at Oak Park as just basically a jewel somewhere that I, if there was ever an opportunity, I would jump at that opportunity.  I just felt like this was the right time to do that. I’ve had other opportunities to apply for superintendent jobs, but I didn’t do it because I just didn’t want to be in those places, but this is the place that I wanted to be in. So, I originally was a political science major; I was going to be a lawyer, and I was actually going to be pre-law. And then I started working at schools and I started working at camps, and I worked at a small Catholic school in Woodland Hills, St. Bernardino. For three years, I was the P.E. teacher. I was a teacher and I was a coach.

The feeling every day going home with the interaction with the students — I just could not believe how wonderful that was. That’s an elementary school, so I was just working with the elementary students and I thought, “wow, that’s really interesting.” I really enjoy this. I enjoy the coaching part — at the same time I was coaching part-time at El Camino Real high school; I was coaching basketball at the time and I really enjoyed the coaching. And then, what happened was I went away.

 I’m a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and I went back to Ohio to go to Ohio State to get my master’s degree. And when I was at Ohio State, I worked in the athletic department as my athletic marketing department, [with] part of my program that I was in, being around the athletes somewhat sort of fed that coaching thing again. And then when I began I ended up working at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. It’s one of the top private liberal arts colleges in the United States. And, again, [I was] being around students again, but that was those were college students. So I was divided, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I did know I wanted to teach, and I didn’t want to do law anymore, even though I’m still interested in law very much. I thought, “you know what, I want to teach, what should I do, should I do college teaching and go back and get a doctorate? [Would it be good] to do that, and be a college history professor, or should I be a high school teacher, or a middle school teacher or something like that?” And at that point, one of my friend’s fathers was a principal at Hale Junior High School in Woodland Hills. I talked to him for half an hour one day and it changed the whole course of my life. The way he talked about teaching was so incredible that I decided I wanted to go into teaching. A few weeks later it turned out that he had a job. I ended up taking the El Camino Real High School job in August of 1986, and I have not stopped being an educator ever since. And it’s just interesting, you know, people’s pathways into what they do.

Davis:  I trusted my peers, my high school, junior high in high school friend, and high school teammates, and I knew his father very well and I trusted him, and he saw something in me. He saw something in me along with what I had in him — I just went for it. And so here we are all those years later. It’s really interesting to look back on that and see what brought me to this place.

Willet: What was your experience in high school?

Davis: I actually had a great experience. I graduated from El Camino Real High School, Woodland Hills. I had a great experience. I was on the school newspaper staff. I was the sports editor of the King’s Courier. I know I was a sportswriter but I think in my 12th grade, I was the editor — I’m pretty sure but I don’t [know for sure]. I don’t know if I really was, but I know I was a sportswriter; I know it sounds crazy but it was a long time ago. I also was involved in the House of Representatives, which was a function of leadership — it wasn’t ASB, but it was a function of it I thought that was great.

I know as a basketball varsity player, I really enjoyed high school and a lot of really great experiences from high school. But what I noticed in high school, even back then, was I felt that there were students that were disconnected from the school and are some of the people that were my friends coming up through like elementary school and junior high, and many of my friends weren’t connected very well and very tightly to the activities of school. I’ve sort of taken that with me everywhere I’ve gone, and that’s why I’m a big proponent that any positive activity that a child can be involved in at a high school is a good thing. And you know, it could be a club, it could be performing arts, it could be practical arts, could be career tickets, CTE (Career Tech Education), could be sports, could be anything. Obviously journalism, yearbook, any of those things that matter to kids, they need to be involved in. ASB is a great example because ASB is something that students can take with them their whole life, because that’s a leadership skill that they learn, being in ASB while they’re in high school, it completely connects them to the school. And a lot of times to the community. And I know Oak Park High School does a lot of stuff out in the community, the various clubs and ASB and things like that, so I just think that’s something that I enjoyed my high school experience. I saw other students not enjoying it as much as I was enjoying it, and frankly, even at that young age, it really bothered me. I really felt bad for those kids, that they would not have the experience I was having. That was bothersome. So I’ve taken that with me when I was a teacher, as a coach and for all these years as an administrator. 

Willet: If there wasn’t one thing if any that you could change about the district, what would it be?

Davis: Wow. It’s hard to say right now. I think I need more time. I think what I need to do is to spend six to nine months and really get to know people. Really kind of see how things go about them. It’s a great question; I do know that I like a lot of things about the history, and I do know there are some amazing programs here, to just keep building upon those amazing things — that that’s something that you know a lot of those things Oak Park is known for, and then … taking that time to look at things and talk to as many people. My goal is to talk to as many people and get to know as many people as I possibly can in the first … six months, and really get to understand more about the district. Then I think I’ll be in a much better place to be able to answer that — I wouldn’t mind coming back in six or nine months and answering that question. 

Willet: Absolutely. What is some advice that you have for students?

Davis: So, as a longtime high school and middle school educator, I’m going to break it down into three different things. So, for an elementary student— I think it’s really important that they build the habits at this young age. You have [to understand and to listen] to what your teacher is teaching in class. Make sure to stay close with your parents. Your teacher is going to help you in class but your parents are going to help you to make sure that you’re kind to everybody. Make sure that you understand that you know everybody has feelings — it’s not good when someone’s feelings are hurt, those types of things that do happen, but then understanding how to make it right. You know that’s really important, and that character is really important. You know the program character counts. Those things are really important as we grow up. So, I think those are really, really important things. The other thing about elementary school is to start to see  what their interests are and what they like to do — do they like art? Are they interested in being in plays and play production? Or, do they love sports? [Do] they want to get interested in sports? My suggestion to young people is to play as many sports as you can. I think that’s really important. And like with art, try different art forms, you know, and things like that. So that would be elementary school. In middle school, it’s a wonderful age because it’s basically an age of discovery, and so I think middle school students should try different electives. 

See what you like — try in humanities, find out who your favorite authors are and fill that bucket, make sure that [if] you like a certain author, you read everything you can from that author, but also try others … And so, you know, anything positive, anything healthy … Middle school students can [explore], with the permission of their parents, in terms of what they read and what they’re in terms of what they’re watching — again, of course, with the permission of their parents or guardians. I think is really, really important at the middle school level and when a student is in eighth grade, I think it’s really important for them to start to expand a little bit and start to see that … high school is the next step. If I had to go back to high school, or if I had to tell every high school student what I would, I would say take advantage of everything. But don’t forget to keep your eye on the prize and the prize is three things — there are three prizes. Number one, your social, emotional and mental health. Number two, your physical health — in terms of nutrition and eating properly and exercising regularly and things like that. And finally, your academics and your co-curriculars.  I kind of look at them almost as the same — your extracurriculars, you know, everything, everything you can take in high school that you have in terms that you’re curious.  I don’t know about that elective but I’m curious about it. Talk to your parents, talk to your guidance counselor, talk to them, because maybe that’s something you could end up doing later in life …  like a CTE class or something like that. In terms of extracurriculars and co-curriculars, get involved, get connected to the school, [and] you’re going to enjoy school a lot more if you get connected into those things. 

Davis: it’s really important to start looking at careers, probably as soon as … the end of ninth grade. Just thinking about it and just checking things out, and researching careers, and researching colleges and researching trade schools — because everybody has a different path. Some students are going to go to Ivy League schools or Stanford or MIT or places like that. Some students are going to go to UCLA, USC, Berkeley, Loyola Marymount, [or] Ohio State, like myself … And then some students are going to say, “no, I’d rather stay around home” … “I’d rather go to Cal State Northridge … ” I went to Cal. State Northridge myself also along with Ohio State and USC. … It’s a situation where, you know, they, they would rather go to junior college first, they’d rather … take that route and get into a UC transfer path or something like that, and that’s wonderful too. And then, some students want to start working, some students want to go in the military, some students want to go to trade school because they have a skill that they can turn into an amazing career — [those]  types of things. So, I think what I’m trying to say is, there’s a path for everyone. And it’s really important to start looking at that path, probably the end of ninth grade … beginning of tenth grade, and really looking at that path.

Davis: There’s a place for everyone, there’s a path for everyone, and that’s … the message, I think, [that] is really important. There are people here that really care. And whether it’s your teachers or your counselors or the office staff or the campus supervisors or the administrators or whomever, on the campus … the custodians … there’s always somebody who cares. Reach out and get those supports … Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Remember the lessons of Challenge Success, but start planning now. 

Willet: Thank you so much.

Calderon: Thank you very much for joining us on another episode of Deep Dive. We’ll see you next time.