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Valeria Silva lauded for St. Paul's approach to English-language learners

Valeria Silva
MinnPost/Craig Lassig
Valeria Silva

Sometimes a homegirl goes along quietly doing her thing over the course of years without it ever really coming to the attention of the hometown establishment that something remarkable has occurred.

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva recently got some pretty cool ink for her 15-year-old campaign to overhaul the district’s approach to its English-language learners, who make up 45 percent of its students.

In a recent Education Week profile, Silva is credited with “helping to change the national conversation about second-language learners.” (Hat tip to St. Paul Public Schools Foundation board member David Hakensen for bringing the piece to Learning Curve’s attention.)

"Because of what she has demonstrated in her work in St. Paul and in her own personal story, many more educators are recognizing that being bilingual is an asset and a skill set to build from, not to tear down," Verónica Rivera, executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Supervisors, told the publication.

That work is described in terms that make the article compelling reading even for those of us who know very little about how English-language learners succeed or fail. For instance: When St. Paul was expecting the arrival of a relatively recent wave of 3,000 Hmong refugees, Silva and some of her staff made two trips to Thailand to the camp they were coming from to learn how they “would think about their experience in our schools.”

That’s right — she asked them. An executive administrator of an institution that typically prefers acculturation. Why?  

The part of the story you probably have heard is that Silva arrived here 27 years ago from Chile, without knowing English. New to most of us is an understanding of how that experience shaped her approach to what is apparently one of the biggest ELL-instruction shake-ups of its time.  

"We were one of the first districts in the nation to put brand-new English-learners in the mainstream classes," Silva says. "We knew we had to put a stop to this whole deficit model of teaching these students English first and content later. Too many of them were never getting to the content."

Kind of makes you wonder how many of her peers have considered a trip to St. Paul to hear about how a local girl done good.  

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