An 'old school' treasure celebrates 50 years in Philly classrooms

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LaDeva Davis works with junior Brittany Harley, 17, in a dance class at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Davis began teaching at the old Bartlett Junior High School.

Davis can neither ice skate nor swim.

She seems to excel at nearly everything she tries, though: dancing, singing, choreography, kung fu. She is a Grammy-nominated producer. She hosted a nationally syndicated PBS cooking program in the 1970s, and has been enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution for her work on that show.

Perhaps most remarkably, Davis has for a half-century - 50 full years - been a beloved teacher in the Philadelphia School District. With verve and passion, she runs the dance department at the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and, at 71, has no plans to retire.

"I'm staying put," said Davis, also a longtime dance teacher at Swarthmore College. "I will leave when I become unproductive."

If a recent day in her dance studio is any indication, that's no time soon.

Sidelined somewhat by a sore shoulder and dressed in (stylish, well-cut) street clothes rather than dance gear, Davis let her assistant run the rehearsal so she could speak with a visitor.

But she still managed to be everywhere: correcting body positions, offering one-on-one counsel to some students, supervising others filling out paperwork for CAPA's dance tryouts.

"LaDeva is a treasure," said CAPA principal Joanne Beaver, who was born just a year before Davis began teaching. "She is an icon. She is a pillar in the community."

That she is still in education 50 years after she started teaching at the old Bartlett Junior High at 11th and Catharine is a surprise to no one so much as Davis.

In the early days, she balanced teaching with singing gigs in Philadelphia supper clubs. She imagined she'd spend a few years in classrooms before working full-time in show business, a natural progression for a young woman who for years took piano lessons and made weekly radio appearances on The Parisian Taylor Kiddie Hour Radio Show.

"But the children captured my heart," Davis said. "Every time I said I was leaving, some child changed my mind."

Davis has a sixth sense for what her teenagers need. A cluster of students walked into her studio, and within seconds, the teacher assessed: Who requires a rubber band for their hair? Why is that young lady squinting, where are her glasses?

"Take off your jewelry, darling," she called to one.

"Ruby, put your hair up, dear!" she said to another.

Davis explained: "I'm everybody's mother and grandmother, their auntie and big sister and teacher and nurse and social worker rolled into one."

She brooks no nonsense. She's a stickler for manners and for grammar - and woe betide the student who tries to grunt "uh-huh" instead of "yes."

"I'm old school," she said. "You walk in between adults speaking, and you say, 'Excuse me.' Today's youth need to know their place."

She is passionate about taking her students out into the world, and about bringing it into her studio: In Davis' class, students have experienced Chinese drumming, flamenco, Irish and African dance.

Notable alumni often return to offer master classes. Her students perform in events such as the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Washington Cherry Blossom Festival.

She remembers students from the beginning of her career; when she encounters them, they still call her "Ms. Davis," even though some now have grandchildren of their own.

Davis is an original member of the CAPA faculty. Once she arrived at the then-new arts magnet school in 1978, she knew she had found her niche. She helped write the dance curriculum - ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop, tap, flamenco.

Throughout, she has kept up her side work as a choreographer for theater companies and even Mummers clubs, and as producer. Along with business partner Ira Tucker Jr., Davis produced the Dixie Hummingbirds' Still . . . Keepin' It Real: The Last Man Standing, nominated in 2007 for a Grammy.

But her main focus is teaching.

Through years of shifts in educational philosophies and, most recently, steep cuts to district budgets, she has thrived.

Gone are the days when teachers were compensated for the extracurricular activities they supervised. Davis, like many, offers her students those opportunities anyway.

"The kids," she said, "come first."

The most difficult part of the job, she said, is not growing too attached to students, some of whom come from tough backgrounds.

"I just want to take them home and make sure they have enough to eat and the right clothes," Davis said.

Instead, she offers as much support as she can at school, gives advice, and, when necessary, shuts the door to her office and cries a little.

"They know I love them," she said.

The walls of her cavernous dance studio are plastered with awards and notes from admirers, with prom and graduation photos of students through the years and snapshots of Davis with notables such as Stevie Wonder and Spike Lee.

"LaDeva! I love you!" scrawled Judith Jamison, the acclaimed artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

"You were the first person to look at me and see the potential I had," a student wrote on a fan letter given equal prominence on the wall.

The awards keep on coming. She was recently honored by the National Council of Negro Women Inc. with their Mary McLeod Bethune Award for leadership, excellence, and achievement in education. And this month, CAPA surprised her with a tribute program featuring current and former students.

To the 100-plus students in CAPA's popular dance program - nearly 300 students are currently auditioning for 40 spots in Davis' freshman class - she is essential.

"She pushes us to be our best," said Sydnye Gee, 17, a senior. "And she's not just a teacher - even in our personal lives, she cares about us. She's inspiring."

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