SPPS super says battling the board not her style

Silva sees media as stuck on the negatives

Valeria Silva
Valeria Silva

St. Paul Public Schools [SPPS] has “evolved” since 2009, the year Valeria Silva was hired as its superintendent. “Have we made mistakes? Yes. Have we improved on the mistakes we made? Absolutely,” says Silva, who adds that SPPS must keep pace with a city that has “gone through the largest transformation in 25 years.”

She quickly challenges those who feel that her five-year tenure should end: “I wouldn’t have given my life, my family, and everything that I am for 28 years if I didn’t want to be here. We need to work together — it is not this group against that group,” says Silva, who has worked in the district for almost 30 years.

Her “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” strategic plan both has its supporters and its detractors, but the superintendent points out that the latter get more attention than the former. “When you are running a school district as large as this, you will never see everyone’s perspective. There is going to be one group that feels [overlooked],” says Silva.

For example, some members of the Black community ask, “Do I feel I have done enough for the African American community? You can talk to some community [members] and [they might say] I have done too much… Others would tell you I haven’t done enough. What is enough?” asks Silva in return. “I believe as a superintendent I have done as much [as] any superintendent before me. I have been the one [with] the…courage to talk about parts of the system that haven’t worked.”

“I think she has a positive relationship with the Black community,” says St. Paul NAACP President Jeffry Martin of Silva. “She has a lot of support within the Black community, but I don’t think it’s 100 percent support because we are not 100 percent community. We are going to be critical of what you do if it looks like you’re going in the wrong direction.”

Some have said that SPPS has become “re-segregated.” Silva responds: “Like [it] or not, it’s hard to find a school that doesn’t have a large percentage of kids of color, period. We’re 78 percent students of color in St. Paul.”

She says the local mainstream media seem to focus more on negatives: “If a kid falls on the sidewalk, it’s going to be a story about the district not cleaning the sidewalks,” continues Silva. “We pick up kids and we do it when it’s snowing, cold, and the weather is this or that. If we miss five kids or 10 kids, it will make it to the newspapers.

“But when we pick up 99 percent of our kids in minus-14 [degree] weather, we don’t get a pat on the back. When we have one teacher [who] is not performing well, that will be the one [story] in the newspaper [that] says all teachers are bad.

“Not everything that’s in the paper is the full truth,” stresses Silva, including the assertion that she and the St. Paul school board often are at odds. Martin concurs: “I don’t think the media wants [stories on] the community working together with [Silva or the school board]. That isn’t what they want to report on. They want to report on the superintendent’s failing.”

“It is the perception of the community that the board is letting the superintendent run the district,” she points out. “I was hired to be the person that runs the district. The board is there to hire the superintendent and to make sure that the budgets are fine and we are not losing money.

“It is my perception on why the negative is coming out more is because people perceive the relationship [between] the board and the superintendent has to be controversial. It has to be this battling. That’s not my style. If I’m going to make a decision, I include my board at different stages of the decision.”

“I definitely think there is a strong faction out there that doesn’t want the superintendent to succeed based on her stated goals,” says Martin.

Silva used last month’s annual State of the District address at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul to highlight the district’s successes despite tough decision-making: new schools opened, more money added to schools, and a racial equity plan that is now in place.

“How do we tell the [positive] stories of people who are happy and served [rather than] when they feel they are not happy and are not served?” she asked. “I do know our schools are better. Not because I made the changes, because I really don’t make the changes, [but] the people who are in the buildings [do].”

SPPS “is a better school district because [of] …what we have been able to add to our kids’ [educational experience],” says Silva, adding that the current district strategic plan completed its first year of full implementation across all grades in the 2013-14 school year.

“We’re a district that has a long way to go to make sure” that every student succeeds, concludes Silva. “This cannot just be St. Paul Public Schools failing or getting better. It’s a community. I need parents behind every kid. We need community members behind everything we’re doing.

“Are we ready for growth? I think we are.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.