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Get on the Bus

In St. Paul’s vast and diverse school district, Valeria Silva, a Chilean-immigrant-turned-superintendent, is making
major changes

Get on the Bus
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 2 of 2)

Despite all of Silva’s focused determination, there are days when her stress threatens to spiral out of control. When that happens, she heads out the door.

“On tough days,” she admits, “I just say, ‘I’m going to a school,’” Her visits are unannounced. “The principals don’t know I am coming. I’ll walk in and say, ‘I have 15 minutes. I wanted to check how things are.’ I take time to go and visit with the cafeteria staff and thank them for the work they do, the custodial staff, the secretarial staff. And then I go observe the teachers. I’ll sit in the back of their classrooms. But best of all is when I spend time with the kids. Some of them are getting to recognize me. They go, “Oh! Here’s the superintendent. The boss of the boss of the boss.’ I love that.”

Alejandra Bosh is Silva’s niece. A little over a decade ago, she came to Minnesota to follow in the footsteps of her “cool young aunt” and earn a masters degree. Like Silva, she fell in love with a Minnesotan, married, and never left. She now works as translation services coordinator for the school district.

“She is the most determined person I ever met,” Bosh says. “She said she was going to go and get her master’s degree: she got her master’s. She said she was going to turn around the ELL department: she made it the best in the state. Now she says she’s going to make big changes in the district. Whatever she puts her mind to do, she gets it done.”

St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman likewise has no question about Silva’s abilities to get things done—and her loyalty to the city’s schools. “Being inside or outside doesn’t always define whether you are going to be successful or not, but when changes are being made it is nice to take off the table whether you have a commitment to the particular organization you are running,” Coleman says. “Valeria is motivated by making this system the best. She is not sitting there thinking, ‘Geez. If I do a really good job here I could be the superintendent of New York.’ This is her community.”

But some day, Silva may get an offer she can’t refuse, says Kyte: “She’s been here for a long time. She knows people here. Her circle of friends is here. But let’s not kid ourselves. She’s going to be pulled to other places. She may go or she may not.”

For her part, Silva insists she’s not interested in leaving St. Paul. “My goal would be to retire from St. Paul Public Schools,” she says, firmly. “Nationally, the average tenure of a city superintendent is two-and-a-half years. I am not going to do that. Yes, I could get a job in another school district and probably get more money and be in nicer weather. But I’m a person who starts something and finishes. And we are not even close to being finished.”

Andy Steiner, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, writes for national and local magazines. She contributes regularly to Minnesota Monthly.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Aug 23, 2012 10:53 pm
 Posted by  st.paul.teacher

Superintendent Silva is focused on having all children test well to the exclusion of everything else. She has implemented a second prep in all of the schools to drill children for the state science test. She has added standardized testing for second graders and wants all teachers to spend the school day teaching to the test, even in schools where the children are already testing well. She makes sweeping decisions for all schools regardless of their needs and current achievement. She is not interested in creating thinkers or problem solvers. She is interested in creating test takers and it's for this reason that savvy parents are leaving the district for charter schools and other options. Soon, the well educated and dedicated teachers of St. Paul will be leaving too.

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