You might say the St. Paul School District has love and stubbornness to thank for its new superintendent. When Valeria Silva showed up in Minnesota in the middle of winter 24 years ago, she was a Chilean visitor who didn't speak English and was amazed to discover that eyelashes could freeze together. But she stayed, first because she fell in love, and then because she refused to admit defeat. "I [packed] my luggage several times; I was ready to leave," she said.

"My husband came home, and I said, 'Take me to the airport, I'm gone.' But then we'd work it out, because I just knew that I couldn't go back and not be a success."

Last month, Silva took the reins of the second-largest school district in the state. After 20 years as a teacher, principal and administrator there, she was chosen because of her deep knowledge of the district and her expertise in teaching English-language learners -- a large group in St. Paul, and one with which she still identifies.

"My goal in life," she said, "is that someday, when I die, there's going to be a legacy ... to help a lot of students in the Saint Paul Public Schools understand that the diversity that we have in our system is the beauty of our system."

Silva, 48, grew up the youngest of four children in Antofagasta, a port city in a desert region of northern Chile. When she was 14, her father, an administrator for a copper mine, was transferred, and the family moved to Santiago, the capital.

Neither parent graduated from college, but "it was the expectation that [their children] would have a college career, or a good job," Silva said.

She followed an older sister into teaching -- against the wishes of her father, Miguel Silva, who thought that with her test scores she could easily handle a more prestigious and lucrative career.

But she persisted. "So he said, 'If you're going to be a teacher, you better be the best teacher ever,'" Silva recounted. "And I said, 'I will.'"

After graduating from Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, she came to St. Cloud to look after her sister's children while her sister participated in a teaching exchange program.

Then, she said, "I fell in love with my tutor," an English major at St. Cloud State. When she returned to Chile, he wooed her with letters, and eventually he flew there and asked her to return to the United States and marry him.

Silva is surprised that her parents went along with it; her suitor wasn't done with college, and they were going to have to live in his mom and dad's basement.

"I asked [my father] later on, 'Why didn't you say no?''' She said he replied, "'Because we knew that when you get something in your mind, you will not change your mind.'"

Mentor Luz Maria Serrano, a St. Paul administrator, agrees with Silva's father: "She is definitely passionate about her work, life, and children. She is intense, and she doesn't let go when she has a deep conviction."

Still learning

Silva has earned national attention for her work with St. Paul's English-language learners, who make up 40 percent of the district's students.

To this day she works on her own English, carrying a notebook for jotting words she doesn't recognize, to look up later.

She told the Star Tribune last year that her English, though very good, is a source of insecurity. "I have always struggled with communication," she said. "The fact that I'm a second-language learner, I don't pronounce things just right or say it just right, and it kills me because I want to be perfect."

But it helps her identify with St. Paul's English-learners.

"I don't think everybody understands the nature of what it takes to leave your homeland," she said. "I can see students and families coming from another country and giving up everything. For me, it was a choice. But for some of the people, they couldn't live in their country or they'd be killed."

Serrano said Silva is an inspiring example to students trying to acclimate to a new homeland.

"There is nothing more valuable than empathy," Serrano said, "and I really think that if you are able to be sincere about that empathy, that you can inspire others."

In 2008, Silva completed the prestigious Broad (rhymes with "road") Superintendents Academy program, an intense 10-month executive management training program designed to groom leaders for the nation's urban school districts.

She never would have been a superintendent without it, she said, because it gave her a lot of tools and insights, such as what has worked and what hasn't in other districts.

Her mentors say that her leadership style is collaborative.

"She really believes in involving the people who are going to be facing the problem," said Neal Nickerson, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota. "And she's not a dictator, but she'll make a decision when she has to."

'Valeria is here'

Eighteen months after Silva married and moved to the United States, her parents came to visit.

She wanted them to believe she was doing well, but she'd kept a secret: She worked in a nursing home, and she suspected her parents wouldn't approve.

They knew only that her job required her to "do activities with old ladies." She had to tell the truth before their visit.

"My mom said, 'Why didn't you tell me? We could have sent you money.' Then they watched me get in my white uniform and go to work, and my parents would see me come back in a really brown uniform at the end of the day," she said.

Her father died a few years ago, before she became chief academic officer of the district. But he'd lived to see her move through the district's ranks to principal.

Silva eventually divorced her first husband. Two and a half years ago she married an engineer who works for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Her mother, Isabel Pacheco, recently broke her hip, and Silva visited her in Chile. She brought copies of newspapers that told how she'd been chosen as the next St. Paul superintendent.

Her mother doesn't speak English, but she had watched Silva's interviews with the school board on the Internet. The only part she understood was when her daughter said "Hi, Mom," and it made her cry.

Her mom made visitors look at the newspapers announcing her daughter's new, high-powered job. And she had finally found a reason to appreciate her daughter's qualifications to provide assistance to old ladies.

"The day I arrived, she fired the two nurses and said, 'Valeria is here. She can take care of me.'"

St. Paul students could say the same thing.

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460