Roots Firmly Planted in Saint Paul
Having spent 25 years at Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, Valeria Silva has seen more than just a few changes in her district. Since 1990, the number of English language learner students has more than tripled from 4,633 students to 15,772. In 1975—10 years before Silva arrived—the district had 100 students from Asia. Today there are 11,000. Silva has spent her entire career at SPPS, which now has 64 schools and 38,500 students, and became its superintendent in 2009. A native of Chile, she was a Broad Academy Fellow, graduating in 2009, and is an executive board member for the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents. She feels her knowledge as an insider has helped her cope with many of the challenges the district is facing. At a time when urban school leaders quickly burn out and move on, Silva assures us that she's not going anywhere.
When did you come to the United States and specifically to Minnesota?
Silva: I'm from Chile and lived there until I was 24. I came to the United States for three months just to learn English, originally. Then I met my husband, I moved back to Chile, and then we came back to Minnesota. It's been over 25 years since we've been back.
Twenty-five years is a long time to have worked in one district. When did you begin at Saint Paul Public Schools, and how has your role changed?
Silva: I began as a teacher in 1986, and then I became a coordinator of the Spanish immersion program and curriculum in 1989. By 1992, I had moved up to become an assistant principal. For a short time, between 1993-1995, I worked for the state department of education as a specialist for ELL standards and accommodations. When I went back to the district, I was the principal at Adams Spanish Immersion School, then director of ELL programs from 1998-2006, and most recently the chief academic officer until 2009.
Do you feel that working in one district for 25 years has made you a stronger, better leader?
Silva: I think it could help you or it could hurt you to be an internal person. Because of my longevity in the district, I had the chance to have different roles in different times of my life, and I've had the opportunity to understand what teachers feel. I was also familiar with the culture of the school system when I came in as superintendent. That can be a big learning curve for a superintendent. Sometimes it takes you over a year or two just to get there.
What has kept you as an educator in Minnesota, specifically in the Saint Paul community?
Silva: Saint Paul is a very culturally diverse community. It feels like a small town, but at the same time, it's still a large city. The other piece is our education system. I believe Minnesota has an excellent education system. This has become my new culture, my new family. I'm one of those people who like to set roots.
Many superintendents, especially those in large urban districts such as SPPS, stay three or four years and then move elsewhere. But you'd prefer to stay rooted?
Silva: I would like to work at Saint Paul until I retire. I believe that it's an exciting time to be a superintendent in an urban setting, and a challenging time. You need to stay in a post for a while to really see reform happen. I think that is one of the issues we have with urban leaders—that they don't often stay in a place long enough because of politics or better offers. I think reform could really help education if we could just settle for a little bit longer.
What goals did you set for the district when you began as superintendent?
Silva: "Strong Schools, Strong Communities" is Saint Paul Public Schools' strategic plan. It is based on proven models and grounded in data. It has three goals: achievement, alignment and sustainability. The focus on achievement is supported by predictable academic supports at every school and a streamlined school choice system with distinct magnet programs. We see our principals as instructional leaders, and we hold all staff accountable with data. We have frequent assessments, and we have already had over 1,000 observations of senior high teachers and over 1,500 observations of middle school teachers this year—all using a common rubric for classroom practice.
The alignment plan establishes six geographic areas that promote learning close to home, because our data shows that students do slightly better in their community schools than in magnet schools. This also means we will have an aligned curriculum across all schools, clear K12 pathways, and systemwide class size and enrollment targets. Goal number three, sustainability, will ensure the long-term success of our core functions, which are teaching and learning. SPPS will work with unions, the city and the county, and our funding partners to preserve programs, services and staffing.
How have you seen the district change since you began?
Silva: In the past 10 years alone, the number of SPPS students who live in homes where English is not the first language has risen from 34 percent to 45 percent. And many of our staff are still not making the connection that the kids we have today are very different from the kids we had 15 years ago. The other biggest changes are the students themselves. Our young people have never known a world without computers. That exposure to technology from the time they are born has challenged us as educators.
Choice is another hallmark of SPPS. In many ways, we have led the state nd the nation in offering quality options for families. Now, 25 years later, we are reinventing a school choice system that not only provides options like language immersion, science, engineering and the arts, but one that offers families a quality school close to home.
Your district has the largest percentage of ELL students in Minnesota. What brings so many refugees to the Saint Paul area?
Silva: ELL students represent 45 percent of the SPPS student population. In Minnesota, Saint Paul's ELL population makes up about 25 percent of the state ELL population. There are a lot of churches in Minnesota and social services that the churches support and sponsor. Apart from the weather, it's a friendly area for families. The communities are very open to accept and embrace diversity and work with families who come from different parts of the world.
Since 1998, the district has been practicing inclusion in the classroom for ELL students. How has this worked, and what are your goals for the future?
Silva: We are going to continue providing the same kind of immersion, but it's more than immersion. It's about the students knowing that from the minute they walk in the door, we have high expectations for all of them. In 1998, the district took a different approach to teaching ELLs. Rather than first learning English to pre- pare them to learn academic content, ELL students were placed in general education classrooms, where they learned language through content.
For example, take a math classroom where the students are learning about whole numbers. The general education teacher is working with one group of students that includes higher level ELL students who are able to use English to learn the new concepts. The other group, led by the ELL teacher, includes lower level ELL students who understand the concepts but have yet to master the English words for them. SPPS began to see significant improvement in ELL achievement about five years after implementation of the collaborative model began.
There has been a lively discussion in Saint Paul about centralizing many aspects of the district. Why do you believe centralization is needed?
Silva: We are finding that some kids are doing really well and some kids are not. SPPS has pockets of excellence, but only half of our students are proficient in reading and math. It's very difficult to create equity across the board when every school has a different curriculum. Some schools have had more money, while others have had many changes in leadership. With more centralization of the resources, we can promise our parents and our customers what we truly can deliver. Also, economically and financially, we cannot afford to have seven different textbooks and companies working with us, or 17 different platforms for computers. We need to function as one school system, not a system of schools.
Our new strategic plan [Strong Schools, Strong Communities] has varying degrees of autonomy based upon how the students are performing. If all of the students at a school are performing at high levels, then we will support them to keep that going. However, if only some of the students are reaching that high level of achievement, then we will more tightly manage the instructional practices and methods to make sure all get the education they deserve.
Between 1994 and 2005, you traveled to Greece, Turkey, Panama, Cuba, Thailand and Chile to review their educational systems. Do you feel this kind of travel has made you a better administrator?
Silva: It has changed the way I look at life and the way I operate. Going to many different places and seeing education in such a different framework allows you to be more creative. We complain that we don't have money in education. And it's true. But when you see what other countries are doing with the little money they have, we should be very careful about saying that.
What do you hope to achieve in the future at Saint Paul Public Schools?
Silva: I hope a few years from now I can look back and be able to say that I guided the district to achieve better results for students. If I can't do it in Saint Paul, I will be really concerned, because we have everything it takes to move from a good district to something really great.