Scrutinizing the St. Paul superintendent finalists


Update: Valerie Silva, Charles Hopson, Deborah Henton are the finalists! The St. Paul School board had many positive comments about each candidate; however, it was an easy and almost-unanimous consensus. Public interview times are Valerie Silva – Wednesday at 5 p.m., Charles Hopson – Monday at 5 p.m., and Deborah Henton – Thursday at 5 p.m.

The legacy of previous Superintendent Maria Carstarphen haunts these superintendent interviews, at least for me. One wants a superintendent who speaks eloquently before a board, a legislature or a community gathering. That is well-tested by this interview process. However, a St. Paul superintendent has to be both a leader and a manager in a large urban school system known for its diversity. Since I took my children through these schools, I can assure you that there is a huge culture change, including management, from school to school. Superintendent Maria Carstarphen actually tried to “standardize” this diversity. I moved here to St Paul because of high-quality and diverse public school options. I settled on A+ arts model school, Linwood, where I was a very active parent. In the reign of Carstarphen, Linwood was “merged” with another school, instead of letting the successful popular Linwood school continue intact.

So my questions are: Are these interviews just a simple great theater performance like Maria Carstarphen’s great interviews were, or is there really substance and performance behind them? Do these candidates have the ability to switch modes, adjusting to a wide variety of management cultures and needs? Or are these one-hammer-fits-all-needs managers? I don’t know that I have the time to find the answers directly. I will find what indirect answers I can.

Mrs. Valerie Silva: First impression is culture shock, then the second impression is “wow.” Mrs. Silva came with at least 10 cheerleaders of different ages and cultures, including families with kids. Any time that people take a Saturday to be supportive, that says deep caring. She had lots of hugs in the hallway. Two audience interviews were eloquent in their advocacy for her. She was born in Chile, so she represents two cultures. Her single-line track of success is in English as a Second Language. She says that it is as important to teach culture as language. I liked her quoting of numbers to measure success. She made a point of advocating a collaborative model of leadership and using other knowledge and skills. I liked the attitude of school should be the center of the community. But, can she go beyond ESL issues and deal with closing a school? Can she effectively politically solicit for more funds? How broad and deep are her leadership and management skills?

Dr. Charles Hopson is an outsider from Portland who promises to be a part of and be committed to St Paul. He had a single theme of being a “systemic equity leader,” which eventually ruled him out for me because that does not always fit with “diversity.” Your measure of goodness as an administrator might not be my measure of goodness as a parent. I did like how he embodied listening and healing into the management set of skills. He had the best story of how listening to a master teacher healed the emotional wounds of that school, and eventually led to a 73 percent pass rate from a failing school. He seems to be missing experience on campaigns to persuade legislatures and communities.

Dr. Deborah Henton is the interesting candidate. In communication skills, she definitely reigned supreme. I even took notes on how she did things for my own interviews. She even ended on the impressive by asking the school board what they would expect the accomplishments of the next superintendent to be in three years. So then the question becomes: Is she just a Carstarphen great interviewer, or is there really substance? Three people in the audience were obviously there for her. One of the audience members gave me a great off-the-record review of her performance. I liked her ability to mix information of conversation structure (saying I will cover that later) with stories, and even research quotes. She claims fiscal responsibility and the ability to campaign for more funds, how documentably good is she? She emphasized a collaborative inclusive approach. My reaction is that all this sounds good; now prove it.