St. Paul schools chief to help Chile tackle problem

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 27, 2011 - 7:24 PM

Valeria Silva heads home on a mission to help solve a strike by students that has effectively hobbled public education in Chile.


Valeria Silva, who began her teaching career in Chile, will take part in a seminar on the future of public education in the South American nation.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva's first teaching job was at a small public school in an impoverished suburb of Santiago, Chile. Using one chalkboard and a handful of tattered textbooks, she taught a class of 45 second-graders. For lunch, she served students oatmeal from a giant pot.

Such decrepit conditions led to a student uprising in Chile that began in June and has shut down most of the public schools.

Silva traveled to Santiago on Tuesday to participate in a forum with government officials about the future of education in Chile.

Protesters say the government has all but stopped funding public education, giving way to a private and for-profit school system that has largely shut out the poor.

Students have used several methods of protesting, including running laps around the presidential palace, going on hunger strikes and holding mass sit-ins in the country's middle and high schools. They are demanding equitable funding for rundown public primary and secondary schools and a constitutional guarantee to a "quality education" from preschool through high school.

Silva said her experience in Chile in the mid-1980s helped frame her ideas on the need and role of public education in the United States and abroad.

"There, your life is determined by an education," Silva said. "You either have it or you don't. I don't understand why education isn't a human right. It really upsets me when the Legislature here doesn't invest in public education."

Chile's student protests have impressed international onlookers for their perseverance and effectiveness. Teachers' unions joined the protests, which led to several schools closing their doors. The government, in recent weeks, proposed negotiations.

"It's gotten to the point where it just broke," Silva said about Chile's public school system. "I really feel the severity of this issue. When you deprive a whole generation of education, there's going to be huge implications."

Silva will give a presentation next week on U.S. public education and her experiences as superintendent of an urban district. She also will sit on a panel with other school leaders to discuss the future of education in Chile.

The seminar, hosted through Fundacion Chile, is entitled "Speaking of Municipal Education: What Kind of Public Education Do We Want for Chile?"

"I think the government is really trying to do the right thing," Silva said. "But you have two sides that are set in their ways. What the government does is going to have huge implications for the future of Chile."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-925-5032 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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