The Will to Succeed

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When she's not helping transform a school district, Rayann Silva is jumping over fire and crawling under barbed wire.

A thought came to Rayann Silva – I’m going to die.  I’m going to fall off this trail in the middle of nowhere and my body will never be found.  Silva had good reason to doubt her survival.  A 45-mile-an-hour wind swirled, turning normal rain into sharp projectiles that lashed against her skin.  The narrow, mud-clogged trail climbed 1,500 vertical feet in only a few miles.  Instead of panicking, Silva took a deep breath and reminded herself she would be fine, that she could get to the finish. 

She did finish and has done so countless times over the past three years. In her day job Silva is an Implementation Coach with UW Tacoma’s Center for Strong Schools.  Outside of work, she’s a Spartan racer.  If you’re unfamiliar, Spartan races are a hybrid run and endurance challenge.  Among other things, participants crawl under barbed wire, climb ropes, and drag heavy objects up hills.  Races can be anywhere from 3 to 26 Silva competes in about 15 Spartan races a year.  Photo courtesy Reebok Spartan Race.miles and can include as many as 30 tasks.

These events require physical and mental toughness, traits Silva has cultivated in recent years.  Her father passed away in 2010 at the age of 50.  His death served as a wake-up call.  “I weighed 220 pounds and I was afraid I was going to die,” said Silva.  “I just did a 180 on life.”

Silva lost more than 100 pounds in a year by changing her diet but she wanted something more.  One day she happened across an ad for Spartan racing.  The image included a person jumping over fire.  She immediately signed up.  Her first race proved difficult and also satisfying.  “I attempted everything on that course and even though I failed I remember walking out of the parking lot thinking I can’t wait to sign up for the next one,” said Silva.

Humility is something that has helped Silva in all facets of her life.  “I’m okay with not being right,” she said.  “I’m okay with not being perfect and I seek out growth opportunities.”  This mindset carries over to her work with the Center for Strong Schools.

The center has teamed up with Tacoma Public Schools in a project called the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative.  The program is a multifaceted approach aimed at turning around underperforming schools by addressing student needs.  Silva, who previously taught in the Clover Park School District, started at the center in 2014.  “I took a leap and left the security of teaching because I felt I could have a greater impact,” she said.

Silva came onboard in the program’s first year.  In her role she helps administrators and teachers take the “whole child” concepts they’ve learned and apply them to the individual school and classroom.  The process wasn’t easy.  “There were a lot of shifts in thinking in that we need to change the adult and not fix the kid,” said Silva.

The initiative seems to be working.  District-wide, high school graduation rates are up, unexcused absences and suspensions are down.  Perhaps even more important, students, parents, and teachers report feeling safer in school.  Silva learned Silva trains at least one hour a day, seven day a week.  Photo courtesy Reebok Spartan Race. the importance of this concept from an administrator who told her “climate eats strategy for breakfast.” “So often in education teachers want strategy, they just want this tool,” said Silva.  “But if you don’t have that climate in place nothing we give you is going to work.”

Silva is quick to add that neither she nor the Center for Strong Schools has all the answers.  “A lot of the work we’re doing has never been done before,” she said. With new terrain come new challenges.  Finding solutions to these issues is a collaborative effort between schools and the community.  “We want to know who are the experts in the community that can help us grow our work,” said Silva.

Most days you can find Silva at the gym or possibly running stairs at Stadium High School.  She’s committed to the process, to bettering herself in anticipation of her next race.  Most days you can also find her in a school.  She’s committed to that process too.

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / February 29, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or