Education issues dear to freshman lawmaker

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of profiles of freshman lawmakers in the 2011 Legislature.

CARSON CITY — Olivia Diaz found a novel way to stand out as a freshman legislator in Carson City: Show up eight months pregnant.

Diaz, a Democrat newly elected to represent Assembly District 11 in Las Vegas, arrived at the capital in mid-January and hasn’t left.

That’s because she’s due to deliver a baby on Feb. 12, five days after the 76th session of the Legislature starts, and her doctor advised against traveling during the final month of pregnancy.

"If you are in the air it is really hard to get you the attention you need," said Diaz, 32, of the risks of making the 441-mile trip from Las Vegas to Carson City while pregnant. "By land, it is a very lonely seven to eight hour drive."

If Diaz delivers on her target date, she would join a short list of legislators who were late in pregnancy or gave birth during a legislative session that includes former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas; former Assemblywoman Erin Kenny, D-Las Vegas; and former Assemblywoman Cortney Swain, D-Reno.

"This wasn’t fully in the plan," said Diaz, who didn’t find out she was pregnant until after she started campaigning.

Her husband, Frank Alejandre, works for El Mundo, a Spanish-language newspaper in Las Vegas.

Diaz has an apartment in Carson City where her parents will join her to help with the baby, and she said if all goes well she could be back at work in the Legislature two weeks after delivery.

"I think it is just going to be something else that motivates me to do the right thing," she said.

An English language learning facilitator for the Clark County School District, Diaz, one of six siblings, was the first in her family to be born in Nevada.

Her father emigrated to the United States from Durango, Mexico, and worked at a plant nursery in Lincoln, Calif., before he moved to Las Vegas and got a job at Caesars Palace. He worked at the famous Strip resort from 1974 until 2009.

"He saw the good times and not-so-good times of Las Vegas," she said.

Her mother was a stay-at-home mom and the family lived in an apartment in what is now the district she represents in the Legislature.

After graduating from Rancho High School in 1996, Diaz attended University of Nevada, Las Vegas and in 2000 earned a degree in English with a minor in communications.

In 2004, she got a master’s degree in bilingual education from the Las Vegas branch of Nova Southeastern University.

She attributes much of her zeal for education to teachers who pushed her when she was young, including high school English teacher Dennis Blackmer, since retired.

"He demanded a lot of work," said Diaz. "He was very engaging, at least for nerdy, geeky Olivia."

Diaz says she tries her best to apply Blackmer’s style of educating in her own job.

"You need to push students and make sure they work past their ability level so they are prepared," she said.

Diaz agrees with Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval that kids should be reading by third grade, but says it isn’t easy for children who show up in school with little to no English skills.

If they are behind English-speakers in kindergarten, it is difficult to catch up by third grade, she said.

"I don’t think that the support is there yet and the infrastructure to make it happen," Diaz said. "If we really want to put them on a level playing field, intervention needs to happen sooner."

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@ or 775-687-3900.

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