Narrowing the culture gap

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Valeria Silva

Words on a favorite plaque in Valeria Silva’s ’90 ’91 office: “It’s a rare person who can take care of hearts while also taking care of business.”

Valeria Silva Armando Camacho 

It’s easy to understand why Valeria Silva ’90 ’91 and Armando Camacho ’97 have been rapidly rising stars in the highly diverse constellation of St. Paul’s public school district. They’re smart, passionate role models for a multicultural student population they connect with very well.

Neither Silva nor Camacho knew English when they arrived in Minnesota in the early 1980s. Each has vivid memories of flying into America on a frigid December day – she from Chile at age 24 and he from Puerto Rico at age 6. Both ended up at St. Cloud State University, graduated summa cum laude and quickly found their niche in Twin Cities education circles – effectively teaching, leading and reforming achievement rates for immigrant and special needs students.

“They have an aligned vision for what’s important for our district,” said St. Paul Superintendent Meria Carstarphen of Silva and Camacho. “It’s an extraordinarily diverse community, serving a population of more than 70 percent students of color. We’re fortunate to have people working for the district who look like them and can talk to them about their culture and relate to them,” adding, “With Valeria and Armando, we believe we just scored.”

No wonder. Because of Silvia’s work, St. Paul is a district nationally recognized as closing the gap for English language learners, Carstarphen said. “More than 40 percent of our students come to us without English at home, and she’s helped us cut through the barriers of culture and language.”

As assistant director of Alternative Learning Programs, Camacho has lead St. Paul’s new Gordon Parks alternative high school and six other alternative offerings, plus extended day and summer school programs. He was recruited last year from the Minneapolis school district, where he did what, according to Carstarphen, is “the toughest thing to do – reform an entire school.” He gained national attention as principal of Whittier International Elementary School in Minneapolis, a job he took in 1999 at age 29. In November a case study was published by him and Stanford University educator Angela Eilers called, “School Culture Change in the Making … Leadership Factors that Matter.”

Whittier, which had been put on academic watch under the terms of the No Child Left Behind Act, was turned around under Camacho’s leadership, growing from 280 to 500 students and dramatically improving their performance. “I’m very proud of what we did,” he said.

Coming back to St. Paul in a leadership capacity was the fulfillment of a dream for Camacho. It was there that his life in America began. He remembers coming from Puerto Rico with the grandparents who raised him to their new home in West St. Paul. When he looked out the window as the plane landed and saw snow for the first time, he said, “I thought it was salt.”

Camacho attended West Side schools until junior high, when his grandparents took him back to Puerto Rico. At 15 he returned to visit his St. Paul friends and made the decision to stay in Minnesota on his own, supporting himself and living with the families of his friends. “I kind of went from house to house those four years, and sometimes I was homeless.” He credits those families with being the mentors and educators he needed to help him learn American culture and take advantage of what the schools had to offer academically and socially.

Camacho started college and played football at the University of St. Thomas, but after two years he had developed a desire to go into special education after working at a group home to earn his living. Visiting faculty and advisors at St. Cloud State helped him decide he could make it by living in St. Paul public housing and filling in some of his classes at Twin Cities community colleges and the University of Minnesota. “I found my professors at St. Cloud State to be very knowledgeable, caring and understanding,” he said. “They were very accommodating, and they did a wonderful job preparing us to succeed. The program was rigorous but very practical.”

One of Camacho’s most influential faculty mentors was Special Education Professor Mary Beth Noll. “I remember him as being not only very personable, but very goal oriented, bright and motivated,” she said. “It was a joy to have him in the classroom, to recommend him for a scholarship and to see him go on to make a difference in the field of education.”

Making a difference is what drives both Camacho and Silva, a leader who this year earned the coveted honor of a Broad Foundation Fellowship for training urban school superintendents. Only four percent of those who applied were chosen for the academy, which includes 10 months of weekend training at sites across the country. The 2008 class includes 12 prominent education, military and government leaders – including a former U.S. congressman – from around the United States.

“I hope to see her as a superintendent,” said Carstarphen, who nominated Silva for the fellowship. “She has really put St. Paul on the map, and we’re already thinking about future leadership roles.”

Silva was already a teacher when she came to Minnesota from Santiago, Chile. Her sister was at St. Cloud State on a six-month faculty exchange to work on
her master’s degree. “I came here on the coldest day – it was below zero,” she recalls. But her desire to learn English was stronger than her desire to return to a warmer climate.

Working at a Sartell nursing home she learned English language and culture from the residents, including a couple of retired elementary school teachers. “They were very good teachers.”

Silva entered St. Cloud State to earn her teacher licensure and the 90 credits to complete a bachelor of elective studies degree, which she did in 1990. “I was one of the few international students at that time to come with a degree from another country,” she said. But the team formed by the international students helped open her mind in new ways. “I totally learned how to appreciate other cultures. St. Cloud State gave me confidence.”

Learning in a new country wasn’t without frustrating situations and challenges. Not having the knowledge of culture and language that American students take for granted can be a detriment to learning. “For example, what does ‘raining cats and dogs’ mean to someone just learning English?” she said.

Her experiences as an international student gave her the perspective to empathize with immigrant students in St. Paul. “I see the world differently because I’ve experienced these situations,” she said.

Both Silva and Camacho understand the importance of helping students from all cultures retain their pride in where they came from and who they are. “Our society is changing,” Silva said. “We need to take our roots but also welcome another world when we go to a new country.”

Just as these two leading Minnesota educators have seized opportunities and worked hard to invest in accomplishing their own goals, they know the responsibility they have for helping

St. Paul students succeed. “We get one shot with every kid to engage them in school,” Silva said. “We need leaders prepared to do the work that affects directly the life and possibilities of a student. We’ve got to do it well. There’s no option of failure.”

“This is not a job … it’s a passion and a lifestyle,” Silva said. “I never forget I’m a role model.”

“It’s nice when someone stands in front of a classroom and says they didn’t always speak English, when as an immigrant student you can see someone who looks like you and knows your culture,” Camacho said. “There’s a lot of power to that.”

Editor’s note: Armando Camacho begins a new position as president of Neighborhood House, St. Paul, May 19.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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