Valeria Silva has some people she wants to thank.
Her departure last summer as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools was sudden, and the past few months awkward.
Bounced by her new school board bosses just six months into a new three-year contract, Silva now works under the terms of a $787,500 buyout calling upon her to provide “advice and counsel” to interim Superintendent John Thein. But she does not have an office at district headquarters, and Thein says he does not ask her to go there when they meet.
Still, Silva, who had a hand in nearly three decades of change in St. Paul, is no down-on-her-luck figure. “Man, she looks fabulous,” Thein reported back to the team of administrators he inherited.
On Tuesday, people will gather for a reception in her honor, and Silva said she plans to thank her former students plus the people she hired over the years in an improbable rise from Chilean immigrant to teacher to administrator to superintendent.
For her, the event is needed closure. But it is not a goodbye to education, for Silva plans to stay in the game in the next phase of her career.
Of her ouster, she said recently, “you do feel you failed in some way or another.”
But she is grateful, too, to have still been around when an officer-involved shooting claimed the life of a beloved elementary school employee.
“It was like: Well, God put me here for a reason,” she said.
In June, the school board voted to part ways with Silva by approving a separation agreement spelling out the buyout terms. That pact also specified the two sides were to agree on the “messaging” of the district’s move to a new leader.
No one, in turn, cited missteps on Silva’s part. But she was jettisoned by a board that was elected on a mandate for change and after a year in which the district reeled from repeat instances of student-on-staff violence and from budget woes tied in part to a failure to reach once-rosy enrollment targets.
A short time later, parents and students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School were devastated to learn that cafeteria supervisor Philando Castile had been fatally shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights after a traffic stop. “Mr. Phil?” the kids asked. A parent’s description of Castile as “Mr. Rogers in dreadlocks” was later referenced in the vice presidential debate, and Silva, attending a national conference, was asked: “Was he that nice?”
Hers was no secondhand account.
“I knew him,” she said.
At J.J. Hill, she approached him in crowds; asked how he was doing; teased him by pronouncing his name as “Castillo.”
“He would look and say, ‘No, it’s not,’ and I would say, ‘No, you are Latino. You have to be Latino. There is some Hispanic in you,’ ” she said. Finally, he relented, she said, and he agreed, “You will be the only one who calls me ‘Castillo.’ ”
Silva, distraught over his death, described him as “one of our own” in the district’s official statement the day after the shooting.
She skipped the funeral, not wanting to be a distraction after the board voted to remove her. But she went to J.J. Hill for the reception afterward — an event during which the district’s cafeteria workers donated their time to serve the meals.
“It was very invigorating,” Silva said. “I sat with his mom. Talked. Trying to just figure it out.”
As director of English language learner programs, Silva made her name nationally by revamping how St. Paul’s immigrant children were taught. Rather than separate students from their mainstream counterparts, she moved them into classrooms where they could learn English and not miss out on grade-level lessons in other subjects.
But when she repeated the move with special-ed kids in 2013-14, behavioral issues arose, classrooms were disrupted, and she and her team were slow to react.
Today, Silva acknowledges that her success with ELL mainstreaming led her to believe she could pull off the special-ed move more easily. The 2013-14 school year also marked the start of her Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan, with its replacing of two-year junior highs with three-year middle schools. If she could do it over again, she said, she would have phased in the changes by adopting the middle school model one year and special-ed mainstreaming the next.
Silva and Thein don’t share much about what they talk about these days. Silva said the district’s proposed start-time changes came up in their recent discussions, but her role is not that of a sounding board for new ideas. She is more like an archivist relaying how things were handled in the past.
Said Thein, “She’s never pulled, ‘I’ve done this forever and you should listen to me.’ It’s a very professional relationship.”
No longer working what she described as 12-hour days, Silva has been free to discover the downtown area in which she and her husband live. She knows where the burger specials are. How the skyway works. Where they brew beer.
A few days after the board vote, she spoke of a need to reinvent herself. But upon further reflection, she wants to stay in education, perhaps again as a superintendent.
“I know there’s a good fit for her out there,” Thein said. “I don’t know where it is. She’s the one who decides it. But she’d be excellent. You can’t be in the business for 30 years and not know what’s good for kids.”