Profile: Valeria S. Silva

Empathetic Support for Refugees
BY LIZ GRIFFIN/School Administrator, April 2018

Valeria Silva

ON THE MORNING of Sept. 19, 2017, Valeria Silva boarded one of the last flights to leave the island of Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria struck. The ensuing several days of television reports that she monitored from St. Paul, Minn., about the devastation moved Silva deeply.

“I saw the stress of the people and I decided to go back and find a way to help,” says Silva.

Since then, the veteran educator who most recently served as St. Paul’s superintendent, has spent seven days in Puerto Rico, working with Secretary of Education Julia Keleher and a handful of AASA members on restoring instruction and resupplying, repairing and staffing schools.

“Education is the only tool to get out of poverty,” Silva says, “and that’s why all of us get up every day and do the work we do. We have the chance to change lives.”

Over her more than 25 years working in St. Paul Public Schools, that goal remained fixed. She is proud that during her tenure (which ended in 2016), the board adopted a policy to support racial equity.

St. Paul’s former mayor, Chris Coleman, tapped into her passion and sense of urgency in 2002, when Silva was the director of English language learner programs. He asked her to join a delegation to a Thailand refugee camp that would close soon after, sending 3,000 migrating refugees to St. Paul over the next 18 months.

Silva describes her 10-day visit to the Thai camp as life-changing. Tattooed on her brain are images of Thai refugees living in overcrowded conditions with nonexistent privacy. People displaced by war had minimal formal education. 

 “I saw that a child might receive only one glass of water a day,” Silva says. “It made me grateful for what I had.”

Once back in St. Paul, Silva provided leadership for creating five transitional learning centers where immigrants would feel welcome, learn English, be challenged academically and receive support during their transition to an urban setting and American culture. 

Silva could connect with these immigrant refugees because she has lived it. When she was 24, she left her native Chile for St. Paul to study English and then take a teaching job.

“Leaders must have a strong social and emotional intelligence to be able to manage the adjustments people face in their lives,” Silva says. “You have to be the boss, even when your heart is hurting.”

In St. Paul, she moved from the classroom up the administrative ladder. As a principal, she started the state’s first Spanish immersion program, then advanced to director of ELL programs and chief academic officer. In 2009, she landed the top position. Her work resulted in achievement scores that were dramatically above state averages. Education Week recognized her as a Leader to Learn From in 2013, and she received the Dr. Effie H. Jones Humanitarian Award from AASA in 2018.

“Courageous” is how her former CEO in St. Paul, Michelle Walker, describes Silva. The two worked together for six years. “Racial equity was not just talk,” Walker says. “While decisions were met with resistance, [she] held her ground because of her belief that it was in the best interest of children.”

Coleman, the city’s former mayor, sums up Silva’s leadership this way: “She is strong and very committed to closing learning gaps. The reality is the job of superintendent is tough. In an urban district, the average tenure is about three years. That she made it for nearly seven gave us a measure of stability that many urban districts do not have.”

LIZ GRIFFIN is managing editor of School Administrator.


Currently: superintendent in residence for AASA and educational consultant, New York City Leadership Academy

Previously: superintendent, St. Paul, Minn.

Age: 56

Greatest influences on career: Thomas Payzant, Carlos Garcia and Arlene Ackerman.

Best professional day: When St. Paul’s school board adopted the first racial equity policy.

Books at bedside: Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Came Together by Van Jones and Courageous Conversations About Race by Glenn E. Singleton

Biggest blooper: As an adult second language learner, the English language has always been a challenge. During a speech to a large audience, I misused the slang “lame duck” and said “limp duck.”

Why I’m an AASA member: I enjoy the opportunity to develop relationships with other leaders. As a member of the AASA Executive Committee, I have been able to support reforms and advocate for what is right for students.