Few top-tier school administrators can claim as high a level of intimacy with the education of English-language learners as Valeria Silva, the superintendent of the school system in St. Paul, Minn.
A native of Chile, Silva, 51, spoke no English when she first came to Minnesota in the late 1980s to help take care of her sister’s children for a few months. More than 25 years later, the woman who still calls herself a second-language learner and at times consults the dictionary to look up unfamiliar words has risen to lead the state’s second-largest district, where 45 percent of the 39,000 students are English-learners.
“Her personal background, as a woman, a Latina, and a second-language learner, makes her quite unique in the field,” says Verónica Rivera, the executive director of the Association of Latino Administrators and Supervisors, or ALAS, based in Washington. “Those are incredible assets for leading a district like St. Paul.”
As the director of the district’s ELL programs from 1998 to 2006, Silva oversaw one of the most dramatic shake-ups of instruction for English-language learners in any major school system at the time. She dismantled the district’s use of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) centers, where beginning English-learners were taught separately from their native English-speaking peers for up to two years, and put ELLs directly into mainstream classrooms.
She got rid of weak teachers, many of whom were clustered in the TESOL centers. And she scrapped the “pullout” method of instruction for English-learners; she replaced it with an approach that kept ELLs in their mainstream classrooms with content teachers who closely partnered with English-as-a-second-language teachers to provide support to those students still learning the language.
By the end of Silva’s eight-year run as the district’s ELL director, 45 percent of the district’s 3rd grade English-learners were proficient in reading on the state exam, up from 30 percent three years before, and higher than the statewide average for 3rd grade ELLs that year, which was 42 percent.
Those results got the attention of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which featured St. Paul’s efforts in a 2009 report, “Succeeding With English-Language Learners: Lessons Learned From the Great City Schools.” The work by Silva on ELL issues catapulted her to the job of chief academic officer for the district, and then, in 2010, to the superintendency.
“We were one of the first districts in the nation to put brand-new English-learners in the mainstream classes,” Silva says. “We knew we had to put a stop to this whole deficit model of teaching these students English first and content later. Too many of them were never getting to the content.”
Rivera credits Silva with helping to change the national conversation about second-language learners.
“Because of what she has demonstrated in her work in St. Paul and in her own personal story, many more educators are recognizing that being bilingual is an asset and a skill set to build from, not to tear down,” Rivera says.
St. Paul not only has a large ELL population, it also has one of the more distinctive English-learner communities in any American school system. Students who speak Hmong as their first language are the largest group of English-learners; Spanish-speakers rank second.
During the 1980s and ‘90s, St. Paul became one of the largest resettlement communities for Hmong immigrants, many of whom had been driven from their homes in the highlands of Laos in Southeast Asia to refugee camps in Thailand after the Vietnam War.
Then, during Silva’s years as ELL director, a more recent wave of 3,000 Hmong children who had been born and raised in a makeshift Thai refugee camp arrived in St. Paul. Several months before they came, Silva and other district representatives visited the camp to meet with families and help prepare them for the transition to formal schooling in the United States.
A few months later, two of Silva’s staff members went back to the camp for a couple of weeks just before the refugees’ immediate arrival in St. Paul to do outreach, learn more about their culture, and start teaching some English-language basics.
“It was important to establish some kind of connection between these families and the schools their children would attend,” says Silva. “For me, I needed to have perspective on how these families and their children would think about their experience in our schools, and how we would serve them.”
Silva, a former teacher and elementary principal who also founded Minnesota’s first Spanish-immersion program, says her years as ELL director inform her superintendency every day. She’s taken other steps, as well, to hone her leadership ability, including participating in the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s urban-superintendents academy.
But it was as ELL director, she says, that she learned to account aggressively for funding intended to support instruction and services for ELLs and discovered it was often being diverted at the school level to other priorities. Tackling that challenge set the stage for Silva’s next phase of change: establishing an instructional strategy for English-learners that would keep them in mainstream classrooms, where they would learn academic content at the same time they were learning the language, rather than letting them continue to fall behind in their subject-matter learning.
At the heart of the effort was something the district dubbed the Language Academy, a model that focused on a strong partnership between the academic-content teachers and the teachers who specialized in working with English-learners.
The ELL specialist usually works across two general education classrooms. To build a true partnership between content teachers and ELL teachers, Silva and her team developed joint professional-development sessions to help both types of teachers learn new instructional techniques, as well as specific strategies on how to work together in the classroom. Specialists were also assigned to each school to closely monitor, coach, and advise teachers as they moved to the collaborative model.
Another hallmark of Silva’s overhaul was her insistence on removing weak teachers, especially those who worked with ELL students. Over three or four years, says Silva, she removed close to 80 low-performing teachers and replaced them with more than 100 new ELL teachers. She did so without much pushback from the teachers’ union, thanks largely to the clearly explained criteria for what ELL teachers would have to do to keep their jobs under the new approach. New teachers were screened before hiring to ensure they would be on board with the model.
“One of the key things I did to make sure this was successful was to find those strong teachers who also believed in this approach,” Silva says.
Silva says she plans to spend her career in St. Paul, a city that 27 years ago she found difficult to embrace with her lack of English skills and the region’s harsh winter climate. She’s reminded of that experience often, she says, as the district continues to enroll waves of new immigrant students, most recently from Burma.
“I don’t make any decision without thinking about being the parent of one of these newcomers,” she says. “The responsibility for these students belongs to all of us.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week