It’s a bright morning just a few weeks into the new school year, and St. Paul Public Schools superintendent Valeria Silva is standing at a microphone. A smallish woman with long brown hair falling loose and past her shoulders, she wears a blue campaign T-shirt neatly pulled over a pair of trim black work slacks. She has a bright, animated smile, Sarah Palin-esqe glasses, and a notable accent.
Today, Silva’s task is to announce the launch of “One Thing I Love,” a public-relations campaign designed to boost enrollment in her district, the second largest in the state. The event is a skillfully presented public-schools pep fest, with a rainbow of schoolchildren singing songs and pounding drums, and testimonials from politicians, parents, and school administrators. The backdrop is a brightly painted school bus that will soon travel the city. Students, parents, and community members will be encouraged to write one thing they love about St. Paul Public Schools on the outside, eventually filling the vehicle with messages of support and good will. A small group of journalists has gathered to record the event, with cameras on and notebooks at the ready. Silva, who oversees 69 schools that educate nearly 39,000 students and employ some 6,000 staff, emphasizes the good news: St. Paul Public Schools boast 19 National Merit semifinalists, test scores are up four percent, and enrollment is up for the first time in 10 years.
In an era marked by budget cuts and belt-tightening, Silva has set out to tackle a challenge that has stymied administrators even in prosperous times: to narrow St. Paul’s significant achievement gap — the difference between how well students of color do when compared to white students. To do this, she has implemented a plan that aims to increase the proficiency rates of students, boost enrollment in the city’s schools, and move the district from its expensive, bus-reliant, magnet-school model to a design focused on community-based neighborhood schools.
She’s also had to make some tough choices, including changes to busing, start-time overhauls, radical adjustments to popular programs, redrawn enrollment boundaries, and the closing of Arlington High School.
“Decisions have to be made that are going to make some people unhappy,” says Grant Abbott, co-chair of the district’s Achievement Gap Action Team. “Valeria understands that she is going to get some blowback on this. She’s going into a field of thistles.”
“Making big changes in schools is difficult,” says Silva’s friend and former colleague, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius. “You can’t bulldoze change.”
Two years ago, when the St. Paul School Board announced its decision to offer Silva the district’s top spot, many interpreted the move in part as a response to the relatively hasty departures of her predecessors: Meria Carstarphen, who after a controversy-filled three years, left the district to head the schools in Austin, Texas; and Patricia Harvey, the superintendent before Carstarphen, who left the position after six years.
The public wanted a superintendent who was willing to stick around, and outside candidates appeared to be using the district as a steppingstone on their way to choicer assignments. By selecting the ultimate insider, a 20-plus-year-veteran who had worked as a teacher, principal, and administrator in the district, the board seemed to be signaling its preference for stability even if it meant fewer risks—the kind of bold initiatives only outsiders could imagine.
Silva had a track record, however. After being picked to head the district’s English Language Learners (ELL) programs in 1999, she overhauled the system, garnering national recognition for championing the innovative approach of having ELL students learn alongside their English-speaking peers, rather than being pulled from their regular classrooms to focus exclusively on developing language skills.
“Many of the experts challenged me at that time,” Silva recalls with a stubborn thrust of her chin. “They said I was doing the wrong thing. But I knew it was the right thing, and I kept going.”
In 2009, the Council of Great City Schools recognized St. Paul Public Schools as having made among some of the best gains in its membership in closing the achievement gap between ELL and non-ELL students.
But it wasn’t just Silva’s success that caught the attention of the school board. She has a compelling story to boot. In 1985, Silva came to Minnesota from her native Chile, not speaking a word of English. She lived with her older sister, then an instructor at St. Cloud State University. To make ends meet, she worked in a nursing home and a Taco Bell. She fell in love with her English tutor. The two married, and Silva, who had worked as an elementary-school teacher in Chile, eventually earned a degree from St. Cloud State. In 1987, she began her long career in the St. Paul schools.
“Her personal narrative gives Valeria an authentic connection with people,” says St. Paul School Board chair Elona Street-Stewart. “It polishes her sense of purpose.”
Welcoming visitors to her fifth-floor office at district headquarters on Colborne Street, Silva is lively, warm, and engaging. She’s keen on listening, but she’s also busy and confident in her decision-making abilities. You can never make everyone happy, she knows.
“It’s like when you build a building and in the first few years the weather changes and the earth shifts and the building settles,” she says. “In my leadership I am willing to do that shifting. It’s not compromising. It’s about listening to what would better serve the majority of the kids, and then making those tough decisions.”
At a school-board meeting in mid October, Silva, dressed in a conservative lavender suit, presents a more subdued version of herself. She’s quiet, even taciturn, consistently respectful to board members and soberly attentive to parents. On this evening, a large group has come to protest changes that her signature initiative, dubbed the “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” plan, will make to enrollment boundaries for the city’s popular L’Etoile du Nord French immersion school. They dominate the meeting’s public-comment period, as parents present heartfelt testimony about how the changes will affect their families.
Silva has heard similar complaints before: nearly every major change that has been implemented as part of her plan has been met with resistance. But she is convinced that in order to make lasting gains, larger, sometimes painful systemic changes must be made. Some have complained that Silva’s focused “eyes on the prize” approach to leadership ranks the happiness of the individual below the success of the group, but others say this is what has to happen in a large, diverse district. Some programs will close, others will condense or expand, citywide busing will be eliminated—all in the name of the larger good.
“What I’d say about Valeria is, ‘So far, so good,’” says Tom Clark, a former public-school teacher who is now a stay-at-home dad. He lives with his family in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul, where his three children attend Randolph Heights Elementary. “The much tougher question is, ‘Can Valeria get the follow-through that’s needed to strengthen education in the entire city?’ Closing the achievement gap comes down to getting every community behind the idea that every child, no matter where they live, deserves a good education. I think that is achievable, but because this means that we all will be impacted in one way or another, it will take some convincing.”
These big changes have to be made with little money. The St. Paul Public Schools have had to make deep cuts to survive the current fiscal crisis. Silva considers herself a master at making more with less, and her plan directly addresses the issue, she insists.
“This year alone we cut $25 million out of our budget,” she says, “and still we managed it so our schools got more money this year than they did in the last two years. You wonder what happened. We made major cuts in the central office. We took big hits in that area and then we put all our resources—or as much as we could—in schools because that’s where the miracles happen.”
Charles Kyte, an education consultant and former executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, believes Silva breathes new life into the role of leading the 156-year-old district. “Valeria is outgoing, expressive, fun to be with,” he says. “She’s smart and also a little bit dramatic. She’s not a gray, blah person. Valeria does her job well—very well—but there’s also a little pizzazz and excitement there.”
“Valeria has a lot of ideas and a lot of energy,” Cassillus adds. “But sometimes I worry that this little Energizer bunny will run out.”
Silva is now married to Paul Stine, an engineer with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. (She and her first husband divorced after 11 years.) She loves to cook, to entertain friends, and spend time with her college-age son and stepson.
“When I get home in the evenings, my husband and I have a deal,” Silva says. “We don’t talk about work.”
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.