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‘Our schools are not what many people perceive’: a Q&A with St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva

Silva, who recently announced that she’ll retire in 2018, talks about her career, her priorities — and her relationship with the St. Paul Board of Education. 

St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Valeria Silva: "We’re the school district that has had the largest deployment and utilization of personalized learning. And we’re seeing incredible things happening."
MinnPost photo by Tony Nelson

When Valeria Silva, superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, moved to Minnesota from Chile at age 24 with limited English, she first found work at a Taco Bell and a nursing home.

She soon started working as a teaching assistant in St. Paul while pursuing her teaching license. After gaining some classroom experience, she worked her way through a number of administrative roles in the district. In 2009, she became superintendent. When she retires upon completion of her current contract in 2018 — an announcement she made earlier this year — Silva will have completed nearly 33 years of service with St. Paul Public Schools.

Silva’s career with a single district sets her apart from her peers across the nation, as does her longevity in the top job. Now six years into her superintendency, she’s outlasted most superintendents leading large urban districts, who average less than four years on the job. She has also long been, as far as she can tell, the only female Latina superintendent in a large urban district (a title she’s happy to now share with Denver Public Schools’ new interim Superintendent Susana Cordova).

She’s now faced with the challenge of working with four new bosses — the newly elected school board members who ran on a platform promising drastic change, particularity in the realm of school safety, sometimes referred to as “school climate.” Silva, who’s nothing if not measured in responding to questions, says she’s confident she shares the same vision as the board, even if that means they’ll need to hash out different ideas on how to execute those plans.

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MinnPost caught up with Silva to review her tenure thus far, discuss her priorities for the rest of her time as superintendent, and get her thoughts on her relationship with the board. 

MinnPost: You’ve outlasted most superintendents of large urban districts. Why do you think that’s the case?

Valeria Silva: I think, as a superintendent, you have to be a learner. You have to be able to see different perspectives and listen to other perspectives in order to be successful. Sometimes it may not be exactly they way you plan it. It’s not about me getting the credit, if the idea came from the board, or the union. I  don’t care where the idea comes from if it’s going to help kids. 

You know what the other secret is? It’s to go to schools. I try go to schools on Tuesdays, the day I have the board meeting and all that. It’s like a caffeine, an energizer to me — to see those kids, every kid, and see that we are providing in our schools the opportunity for them to become anything they want. 

MP: Why the decision to retire in 2018?

VS: I have a contract for three years — which is what every superintendent gets. It’s right on that third year when I meet the Rule of 90. It’s something that teachers get — not anymore, but my generation did — so that as you retire, you can get your pension and all that. I just knew that this would be the last contract, because I also know that after nine years in a district [as superitendent] — especially when we have done a lot of change and we have pushed a lot of different agendas — the next leader will be able to take it to the next level. And then I will be old enough to retire and figure out how to reinvent myself. Do I want to be a superintendent? I think I said to Josh [Verges of the Pioneer Press], I want to go back to Chile for a month and visit my country. I haven’t even been to most parts of the country. I feel like I have a lot of areas I can explore.  

MP: What are some of your proudest accomplishments as superintendent?

VS: I’m very proud of the work we’ve done towards understanding and using the framework to talk about race. It has been, for me, an anchor, in many different ways whenever I make a decision. I have grown professionally and I have learned more about myself by learning how race affects education. It has given me many tools to understand the disparities and also to be proud of being a Latina, which for many years I felt like it was an obstacle because I can’t speak without an accent. That’s becoming not an obstacle, but an asset. I can now strongly stand and tell parents and kids, ‘Don’t be ashamed. Encourage your kids to speak different languages, it’s the future.’ And understanding the race theory has been very powerful. I think, as a team, we all have grown to understand that because we’re all different we’re an asset to each other.

I’m also very proud that we are able to have equity across the board, with technology. All kids have access to technology, which most school districts in the country don’t. We’re the school district that has had the largest deployment and utilization of personalized learning. And we’re seeing incredible things happening. 

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This district is financially pretty stable. We went through the recession. We lost money from the state, all those other things. But we were able to continue delivering, probably not as good as we would have liked to because the money is not there. But our bond rating has gone up every year that I’ve been here. That’s a really incredible asset for the district. That’s how you get bonds, how you get everything else. 

Also, we have aligned a lot of services. [Before], we didn’t have a school district, we had a district of schools, because every school did their own thing. We have been able to unify our school district to become one school district. We created some equity across the board — from what you teach, what you offer — without losing the individuality of each school. 

I also feel very proud that I have been able to work with 15 different board members, 15 different bosses. That has been a gift for me because I have tremendous memories of what they brought to me as a leader, what they taught me, and what they learned from me. Our board has been pretty diverse on the people who have been there. Elona [Street-Stewart] was and has been like my role model because she was one of the strongest women of color that I’ve met, that I look up to.

MP: Now that the end is in sight, do you still have drive to get things done?

VS: It’s two years and 10 months [away]! Actually, I think it’s very beneficial for a district to know when the leader is done. I’m giving them plenty of notice. I will continue to work as I always have done, until the last minute, because that’s the kind of person I am. And if we could just have an opportunity to do a transition for the new superintendent … that doesn’t happen. And that’s really what is so hard when superintendents change.

MP: What do you think is most important to try to achieve during the remainder of your term?

VS: The most important priority is school climate. We must improve the school climate in our schools. We know that’s an expectation of all our families and our students. Also, we know that school climate [is key] to being able to get student results. 

We need to continue looking at our enrollment. How do we provide different options, or even the same options that we have today, and provide our families with more information so they can choose St. Paul Public Schools, so we can increase our enrollment?

And we are reshaping our special education and ELL [English language] programming. We’ll continue to assess what’s working and what’s going to change. That’s going to be one of the things we’ll be doing in next few months.

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And we have to get this budget done. It’s so hard for a superintendent, and obviously the whole staff, to deal with this whole budget process every single year. We have to figure out how to do the same, or better, with less dollars.

MP: To what extent are school discipline and safety issues in SPPS different from other large urban districts?

VS: I think, in reality, they’re not that much different from other large urban school districts. But that’s not what we should be comparing ourselves with, because I want our school district to have incredible discipline and safety and security. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming from an urban setting or not, [parents] should feel comfortable and secure to send their kids to our school. It’s an area that we still have to continue working together to get it done right. I believe the life of kids today is much harder than it used to be. It’s not an excuse to be using violence as a way of expression. But that’s the reality…social media, exposure to different things, poverty, and access to things they didn’t have before has changed the way our young generation is acting.  

MP: Can you describe what you’ve been observing inside schools, in terms of school climate, and your takeaways?

VS: My first observation is that incidents of what happened yesterday at Como [High, where a teacher was assaulted by two students] are absolutely not acceptable. They get extremely publicized and people believe every school is going through the same thing. That’s not the case. My observation is that our schools are not what many people perceive from the outside. We have tremendous staff that is working with challenges … that we need to acknowledge. There are different kinds of discipline strategies or routines that each school has because they work for each individual building. Principals and administrators and teachers are sharing that, because something that works for one school may not work for another school. We are being much more specific when we look at school climate and where the actions are taking place. If it’s in the cafeteria, what kind of support do we have in the cafeteria? Do we need to add more? Or if it’s in a hallway, is it too narrow and we have too many kids going through at the same time and kids are bumping into each other? We’re becoming much more strategic in how we’re using our resources. But as you may imagine, when you’ve got over 1,000 kids in some schools, it’s a small city that our administrators, teachers are working in.

MP: In terms of addressing school climate, do you think there’s a real divide in approach?  

VS: The board members haven’t come with ‘You have to do x, y and z.’ They said we need to improve what is happening. There’s no reason to not want to improve. I am not satisfied at all in using violence to solve issues that the kids are using. We need to find ways — from other schools, other communities — to help our kids, and also our staff to help the students get their anger out before it becomes an issue for them. It’s not that it’s just happening in the schools, it’s happening in their streets, their neighborhoods, and that’s where they’re living. This is a school problem, but it’s also a problem that comes from the community into our schools. That’s where we deal with it.

MP: What’s your relationship with the board?

VS: For me, it’s about respect and giving them time to get to know me, the true Valeria — the educator, the person who has the soul and heart in this job — and for them to learn why some of the decisions were made, and what new things can be done, and how open I am to take recommendations to improve it. Because this is not my district, this is St. Paul Public Schools’ district. It belongs to the city, it belongs to the parents, it belongs to the kids. One day I’ll be gone, but someone else will be here. It’s about respect. In general, I feel that I’ve always been a respectful person. I may respectfully disagree with you, but that doesn’t mean there will be drama. That’s not my way of leading. We both have the same goals. I want a better school district, they do too. I want a school district that serves all kids well. I want a great education, I don’t want just a good education. And they do too. How we get there? There are different vehicles to do that. I also think the media did a lot of pushing it out, to make it sound like this and that. I’m very open. Whatever you see is what you’re going to get, always.