St. Paul public schools Superintendent Valeria Silva offered an impassioned defense of changes enacted in her five years as district leader during a State of the District address Thursday that often took the tone of a campaign speech.

Silva, in fact, is in the final year of a three-year contract — a deal that the school board said in December it wants to renew.

Among the supporters on hand for Thursday's event at the University of St. Thomas was Mayor Chris Coleman, who said that Silva has the state's second-largest district "definitely on the right path."

But there is displeasure elsewhere in the community. Candidates are lining up to run for the four school board seats up for election this fall, and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has assisted in organizing efforts in advance of next week's precinct caucuses. A Facebook page created for the benefit of board challengers carries the name "Caucus for Change."

"The more people in the race encourages healthy debate and gives the city the school board they deserve," said Denise Rodriguez, the union's president.

On Thursday night, the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP hosted a listening session on district issues that drew 11 candidates — eight challengers and three incumbents — and 60-plus community members. There was talk of a desire for new energy on the board, and a need for the community to be united behind its kids.

In the past nine months, however, St. Paul has become a district divided. On one side are teachers and parents who decry "top-down, one-size-fits-all policies" launched with what they say was inadequate staff support. On the other are Silva and her supporters, who have acknowledged that while things have gotten messy, the changes have been necessary to ensure all children succeed.

One such directive, the shifting of many special-education students into regular classrooms in 2013-14, has been cited by critics as a factor in the escalation of unruly behavior in middle schools. Last year, suspensions for students in grades six through eight were up 63 percent, from 1,071 to 1,748, compared with the previous year.

On Thursday, Silva noted with pride that a group of students from Four Seasons A+ Elementary who sang, danced and beat the drums at Thursday's event included some who had special needs and who had benefited from being "in the mainstream." She wondered, she said, if they would have been performing there three years earlier.

"It is the right thing to do," she said of the district's inclusion and equity policies. "We need to embrace every child in the room."

After the speech, Rodriguez said that while she agreed it was "very important, and often easiest, to celebrate the good news, it's just as important to realistically look at where additional supports are needed to meet the needs of all students."

Silva said Thursday that the district learned some lessons last year and was providing support where needed. But disciplinary issues flared anew at Ramsey Middle School in the fall, forcing the district to deploy new student support teams at each grade level staffed by a social worker, counselor and intervention behavior specialist.

Still, as a parent, Silva said, she'd put her child in any school in the district — a statement that was greeted with applause.

Confident style

Silva, noting how people often remember problems rather than accomplishments, asked attendees to help spread "the good news" and become ambassadors for the district.

Standing away from the podium, gesturing firmly, Silva seemed more confident than at any time in the past two years, when a Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan that put new emphasis on neighborhood schools took hold.

To date, enrollment targets have not been met. Major bus savings did not materialize. Achievement gaps persist.

But Silva said graduation rates are up, and those of black students and English language learners surpass those of their state peers. The iPad rollout launched in the fall has helped students be more engaged in their learning, she said.

"I am the proud, proud superintendent of St. Paul public schools," Silva said in closing.

At the NAACP event Thursday night, however, Zuki Ellis, a parent at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School who is seeking a board seat, cited the iPad initiative as another program introduced suddenly and with little or no community input.

She's running to ensure that people have a voice.

"They are saying, 'We should feel included and invited to the table,' " Ellis said.