Photo by Eliesa Johnson
Jason DeRusha and Valeria Silva
Random Facts: The 39,000 students who attend Saint Paul Public Schools speak more than 120 languages and dialects, and by 2016 most of them will have an iPad.
As superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools, Valeria Silva has pushed for one controversial change after another: reducing citywide busing, replacing junior highs with middle schools, and now giving students iPads. But her personal story continues to inspire: This immigrant from Chile, who is still learning to speak English, is a former part-time fast-food worker who understands what it’s like to struggle.
Why did you come to Minnesota 29 years ago?
I came to St. Cloud State for three months to learn English. I was 24. I met a man. We fell in love.
He got you to stay.
We got engaged. My husband wasn’t done with school. I worked at a nursing home, at Taco Bell, at Dayton’s selling children’s clothes, and went to St. Cloud State.
You were broke?
When we got our apartment, I got bricks and boards for my shelves—not the laminated ones, the ones that give you slivers. Many people never get out of the bricks and the boards.
Part of why you were chosen as superintendent was because you know St. Paul. You spent 20 years as an administrator and teacher.
I taught second grade in a Spanish-immersion program first: part of the day in English, part of the day in Spanish. I would go home and practice my English phonics so I could teach the next day.
Are there days you wish you were back teaching second grade?
Yes, absolutely. There are many days. [Laughs]
Have we swung too far to deferring to the parents?
We always try to hear different perspectives, because sometimes we make mistakes. We need to understand that with many of our kids, we don’t know where they slept, or if they slept. Or if they saw someone being shot or chased. Still with all those challenges, they come to school. They’re there. They do want to learn.
Do we need to punish differently?
Punish isn’t the word. We have kids who get punished every minute of their lives: they don’t have food, they’re surrounded by crime.
But disruptions are problems.
It takes a team. There are teachers, principals, social workers. Everything you can fix, up to 97 percent. There are 3 percent of the kids who are disconnected, have other needs, have mental health issues.
If money and politics were no object, what would you change?
First of all, I believe our school day is too short. We have our kids for six hours.
A lot of successful charter schools have their kids for eight hours.
I love summer, but are we screwing our future because we want to go to the cabin?
There are some kids who would definitely benefit from an extra month of school. We have 15,000 students in summer school. We’re making it not like a punishment—it’s an extension of school.
Are we overtesting?
We need to test; we need to measure. My concern is that the testing, after a certain grade level, means nothing to the kids. It’s not a tie to their personal life. It’s almost depressing. We know teachers and administrators work so hard, and we’re only measured by the test.
What keeps you going?
I was talking with a group of students, and one young woman came up to me and said, “You inspired me to be a teacher. My family doesn’t want me to be a teacher, but I want to be a teacher.” That made my day. My parents thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer, but teaching has always been my passion.
What do you do for fun?
My work is my life—it always has been. Good or bad, it always has been. Even as a principal, I’d work until 9 o’clock. My school was my baby.
The restaurant: Valeria Silva loves the Downtowner Woodfire Grill, on West 7th Street. What we ate: Silva always orders the swordfish: “It reminds me of how my mom used to make it in Chile.” It’s marinated in thyme and a charmoula sauce, which is like a pesto made with Persian spices. I had the lamb kabobs.
My lunch date: During our lunch we saw a former city council member and the head of the AFL-CIO labor union. Silva asked them, “Are you still mad at me?”
Jason DeRusha anchors WCCO-TV’s morning and noon news. He also asks some really good questions.