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How Many Superintendents Are Former English-Language Learners?

With Minneapolis' move to hire Sergio Paez as its next superintendent, the school chiefs in two of Minnesota's largest districts are former English-language learners who bring intimate knowledge of the challenges facing one of the state's fastest-growing student populations.

Paez, who was born in Colombia, and St. Paul schools superintendent Valeria Silva, a native of Chile, have both made the transition from English-learner to district leader.

While there are other superintendents in the country who also began their education in the U.S. as native speakers of other languages,—Richard Carranza in San Francisco and Carmen Fariña in New York City, to name two of the better known examples—it's still relatively rare for a one-time ELL to end up at the helm of a district.

Paez was the former head of Holyoke, Mass., schools. Paez left having served two years at the helm in Holyoke after the Massachusetts Board of Education placed the district under state control, as my colleague Denisa Superville reported on the District Dossier blog this week, Before that, Paez was an assistant superintendent in Worcester, Mass., where he focused on improving academic achievement for English-language learners, who made up roughly a third of the district's students.

"I believe that my own personal experience growing up in a home in which English was not the first language has provided me with the knowledge and the understanding that are essential to helping students navigate the educational system successfully," Paez wrote in his application for the Minneapolis job.

Silva has a similar experience. She didn't speak English when she arrive in Minnesota in the late 1980s. She served as the director of St. Paul's English-learner programs from 1998 to 2006, winning recognition from the Council of the Great City Schools to help the district narrow the achievement gap between ELLs and native English speakers.

Minnesota is home to a varied mix of English-learners, many of whom are refugees from countries where education is frequently interrupted by internal strife.

In a 2013 Leaders To Learn From profile of Silva, she said, "I don't make any decision without thinking about being the parent of one of these newcomers. The responsibility for these students belongs to all of us."

Roughly a quarter of Minneapolis' students are ELLs. In St. Paul, more than 40 percent of students are language-learners.

The latest state data indicates that 65,000 English-learner students are enrolled in Minnesota's K-12 schools. Minnesota Public Radio reports that "number has grown rapidly in the past two decades, soaring by 50,000, a 300 percent increase."

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