by Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2001

Dr. Abelardo VillarrealSchool principals are challenged to create the climate, structures and practices for academic success of all students. A new principal in a school with a high percentage of English language learners and a campus considered academically low-performing may be especially challenged to create that climate.

As a new principal, your school is familiar. The campus has a turbulent past, has had a reshuffling of staff, and needs a new beginning for students who expect educational equity and excellence and a fair chance to graduate from high school and college. You are expected to employ innovative school reform initiatives adapted to address English language learners, who nationally still remain a most academically neglected and shortchanged group of students. You will be faced with the critical task of achieving equity-based educational excellence and a challenge to balance instruction that prepares all students for state criterion and achievement tests and teaches a curriculum that is comprehensive and more encompassing. Many principals are faced with similar situations.

The purpose of this article is to provide principals with a framework for executing research-based changes and provide suggestions and procedures for achieving these changes. First, this article gives a synthesis of the literature of what works in schools with high concentrations of English language learners. Second, this article discusses key challenges that principals face in campuses with these demographics. Third, it provides some insights on how to frame responses to these challenges.

Synthesis of the Literature

Successful campuses “talk the walk” (articulating what needs to be done) and “walk the talk” (doing what should be done). These campuses evolve in academic environments that are determined to succeed and have no excuses for anything less than success. They use and teach in English and the native language. These campuses embrace a philosophy that values what English language learners bring to the school – another language, another culture and a set of unique experiences that are not part of the mainstream. Successful campuses capitalize on students’ language and culture and consider them national assets that should be preserved and utilized.

Principals of these campuses are informed about the most recent knowledge of linguistic, cognitive and social development of English language learners. These principals have been able to neutralize or circumvent the effects of contextual issues (poverty, violence, etc.) within families and communities on the quality of education and achievement outcomes of English language learners.

The box below is a checklist that elaborates on the research-based attributes that contribute to school and student success. Key indicators of school success are categorized by 10 attributes and may be used as the framework on which to build a blueprint for change. This blueprint is framed in school improvement plans that have been developed after consultation with personnel at institutions of higher education, teachers, parents and community members.

Challenges in Framing a Blueprint for Change

Principals assigned the responsibility of turning around a campus that has been struggling with academic low performance and a negative image in the minds of the major stakeholders in the community are faced with complex and difficult challenges. Below is a list of these challenges and a discussion of successful strategies that have been used to create the change opportunities conducive to student success. Student achievement and success in other school endeavors are central to any vision and strategy used to guide school reform efforts.

Challenge 1: Improve the school climate. The climate that surrounds the instruction of English language learners must be positive, encouraging, and inviting for teachers, students and their families. A sense of optimism and commitment must prevail. Administrators and teachers can communicate high expectations to students, including English language learners, and can show particular manifestations of high expectations.

Some schools do this by creating banners that convey high expectations in both English and the native language. One school had a banner that read: “Only apathy will stop us from reaching the highest star [Sólo la indiferencia nos puede parar de lograr la meta más alta].” This banner was on the school marquee and would be placed at the entrance of each wing. Furthermore, teachers were asked to discuss with students each morning what this meant. Teachers and students collaboratively would identify their goal for that day. Families received training from the school on ways to set and communicate high expectations for students. Whenever the school failed to reach its goal, the focus was not on finding an excuse but on how to adjust the instruction.

In a study by The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, Successful Texas Schoolwide Programs, the authors outline their findings around seven themes. One theme, “No Excuses,” describes how, in spite of numerous obstacles and difficult odds, teachers and administrators are able to do what they feel is needed in order for students to be successful. A task for the principal is to get teachers, administrators, families and communities together to develop a vision that is inclusive of all students. Non-negotiable at these meetings are the following ideas: Strive high; Every student has the potential; No excuses; Sí se puede [Yes, it’s possible] (Lein et al, 1997).

A diversity of languages and cultures in the school was validated through various cultural celebrations and integrating English language learners in as many classes as possible. For example, at the first staff meeting of the year, the principal made it a point to talk about the different languages and cultures represented at the campus. Part of the principal’s message was to use this campus asset and capitalize on it by discussing in teacher meetings and classes the benefits of diversity. Students were provided an option to learn another language. In this particular case, a paraprofessional who was a teacher in Mexico but did not have certain related credentials in the United States was hired to teach Spanish. Each class had at least 45 minutes a week of Spanish language instruction.

Challenge 2: Establish and nurture human relationships among educators, teachers and administrators, among educators and students, and among educators and families. Goldenberg and Sullivan describe leadership as the “cohesion that makes the other elements and components” of a program work together to create positive change (1994). Principals are charged with the task of establishing and nurturing relationships that collectively can have an impact on the quality of a transitional bilingual education program in a school. The issue of relationships cannot be underestimated as a potent factor in creating an environment conducive to learning.

In 1992, the Institute for Education and Transformation at Claremont Graduate School issued a report of research involving four culturally diverse schools that demonstrate the power that human relationships have on keeping and engaging students in school. Sergiovanni summarizes these findings around seven themes, each stressing the importance of caring relationships based on mutual respect and trust (1994). Furthermore, each theme relates some of the problems that emerge when such relationships are nonexistent or weak. Lessons learned from the study include the following.

  • Student depression and hopelessness are the byproducts of poor relationships between educators and students. Schools must emphasize the importance of creating a partnership relationship with students and families based on a desire and commitment to make education work for students.
  • Students are conscious of race, culture and class issues and seek to know and understand each other’s culture. Schools must address these issues as part of the curriculum and consider them in planning and delivering instruction.
  • Students seek adult guidance from teachers and parents and desire to talk about values and beliefs. The myth that poor families have radically different values is debunked by this study.
  • Schools usually do not view these critical human relationships with much seriousness. Principals should revisit their campuses and study the relationships that prevail relative to the implementation of a transitional bilingual education program. If any of the answers to the following questions is no, it is critical that some form of intervention occur. The questions are:
  • Do all teachers feel a responsibility for the academic achievement of English language learners?
  • Have you created a “community of mind” as reflected in a shared vision and expectations of English language learners?
  • Does your faculty consider community people and families of students as assets that must be tapped to form partnerships with school people to design and deliver the best education possible for all students?

Other related challenges to the principal include: (1) creating an impetus and a vision of success without boundaries; (2) nurturing exemplary educational environments that promote academic success and a safe, orderly and caring environment; (3) leveraging funding to garner necessary resources; (4) establishing and consistently nurturing a “sense of family”; and (5) providing opportunities for staff, students and the community to celebrate their successes.

Challenge 3: Provide opportunities for collaborative planning and designing curriculum and lessons. Sergiovanni describes the context of a request for collaborative planning, “Ambivalence between the value of individualism and the need for community accounts for our discomfort whenever someone suggests that teaching practice become more collective” (1994). The fact that successful schools for English language learners require some degree of collaborative planning presents a challenge for principals.

Experience has shown that, although learning communities exist in most schools, the benefits of communities that were formed with some trepidation are minimal. Principals must face this challenge by allowing time for groups of teachers to define the role of the committee and its members and to establish rules that support partnerships.

Principals must set the example, provide ample opportunities for communities to form, celebrate successes of communities, provide support to fledgling ones and guard the concept constantly.

Challenge 4: Provide staff development opportunities on effective teaching strategies. High expectations is a key training area and is perhaps one of the hardest areas to address through professional development activities. August and Hakuta affirm by acknowledging, “One important way to raise teacher expectations is to raise student achievement by helping teachers acquire skills and knowledge needed to be more successful with students, rather than exhorting teachers to raise their expectations” (1997). The need to provide professional development opportunities that are closely associated with the instructional design or model cannot be overemphasized. Topics include specific learning and metacognitive strategies, cooperative learning and thematic units in the native language and English.

Most of the literature on effective bilingual programs document teaching practices that have been observed in classrooms where English language learners succeed academically. For example, Collier identifies three major themes: (1) highly interactive classrooms, (2) problem-solving activities, and (3) inquiry and discovery learning activities (1995). Zehler augments this list to include a predictable environment, active participation in meaningful and challenging tasks, and providing support for understanding (1994).

Challenge 5: Recruit competent teachers who are sensitive and capable to teach all student populations. Recruiting teachers who have their heart in the right place and are well informed on the most recent research on effective instructional practices is at the core of the problem. Principals in successful schools “kept their ear to the ground” and always identified teachers who demonstrated the will and the competency to implement quality bilingual education programs.

Cárdenas and Cárdenas make the following recommendations about staffing a bilingual education program (1977). First, staff must be informed of and acknowledge the unique characteristics of language-minority students. Second, staff differentiation is an alternative to adequately staffing a bilingual program. Third, the program must embark a massive retraining of teachers that includes “regular” teachers. Last, there should be a program for lateral and upward mobility of bilingual education staff.

Challenge 6: Provide guidance to new teachers; protect them from the influence of other teachers who overtly or covertly are sabotaging any innovative school reform. New teachers are vulnerable individuals who learn quickly to accede to the whims of indecisive administrators and an apathetic faculty. Many new teachers are placed in “no-win” situations and are overwhelmed by a feeling of “loneliness in the wilderness.”

In successful schools, principals provide opportunities for subdominant groups like new bilingual or English as a second language (ESL) teachers to have “access to decision making, creating internal advocacy groups, building diversity into organizational information and incentive systems, and strengthening career opportunities” (Bolman and Deal, 1997). New teachers are acknowledged for their atypical skills and commitment to equity-based educational excellence for all learners, including English language learners.

Challenge 7: Map the assets represented in the community and in families and integrate them into the instructional plan. Kretzmann and McKnight acknowledge the power that an asset-based partnership between the school and families can have on student academic success (1993). This asset-based approach focuses on strengths of the family and embraces the “we” concept, in which schools and families share an attitude of mutual resolve to seeking solutions that affect the quality of education.

A caring and responsive school is the best guarantee of a community’s future. The partnership that ensues provides a firm foundation for educational renewal and community regeneration. This partnership shares a vision and develops a plan for making that vision a reality. This strategy begins with acknowledging strengths and assets that are present and not with looking for what is absent or problematic. Families and schools are not deficit-driven; they are strength- and asset-driven.

Challenge 8: Organize instruction in innovative ways; build flexibility into the instructional design. There is no single way to specifically address the profile of a successful classroom. No classroom is exactly the same. Modifications and adjustments must be made to ensure that the instructional approach responds to the contextual conditions and is aligned with the characteristics and needs of a diverse student population (Berman et al., 1995).

The challenge of creating the most appropriate instructional model rests with the school and community. For example, schools with effective bilingual education programs create small organizational arrangements (e.g., families and academic teams to build cohesion and unity of purpose, to augment communication among teachers and to create a system of support) (Villarreal and Solís, 1998). Principals must acknowledge, embrace, and promote diversity and must encourage innovativeness in instructional design.

Challenge 9: Provide a challenging, intellectually enriching curriculum. The curriculum should be intellectually challenging, interactive and meaningful. Students’ language and culture should be valued and seen as an asset and a strength to build upon and not as a deficit that must be obliterated. The instructional program for English language learners should be the same as the mainstream curriculum.

The major difference lies in the language used for the delivery of instruction or an adaptation of teaching strategies to ensure comprehensible input and meaningful student-teacher dialogue. The delivery will be made either in the students’ native language or in sheltered instruction in English.

For example, bilingual education and ESL programs have been mislabeled as remedial programs since their inception. Traditionally, these programs have been created to address a deficit-driven program of instruction for English language learners that tends to keep students from participating in the mainstream curriculum. It is not uncommon for parents to deny enrollment of their children in bilingual education because of the remediation stigma attached.

In addition, successful classrooms are print-rich. Books are available in the students’ native language and English. Administrators, teachers and community members should promote reading by allocating times for everyone, including cafeteria workers, janitors, and office clerks, to spend time reading.

Challenge 10: Align curriculum both horizontally and vertically. Curriculum fragmentation is perhaps one of the most irresponsible school practices that contributes to educational chaos in this country. Study after study reveals that scaffolding instruction in a manner that is incrementally more difficult is a more responsible approach. Teachers across grade levels must have opportunities to discuss the chain of skills and content that form the school’s curriculum. Elementary school teachers must have opportunities to align their curriculum by communicating with middle school teachers. Likewise, middle school teachers must communicate with high school teachers.

Bilingual and mainstream teachers at each grade level should meet to plan their grade level instruction collaboratively, thus ensuring alignment horizontally. This alignment not only is realized through planning but also is extended to include team teaching, pairing of classes and regrouping students (McLoed, 1996). In other words, English language learners should have the same opportunities as their English-speaking counterparts to take advantage of the curriculum.

Challenge 11: Establish a program that capitalizes on the linguistic strengths of students and families in the community. Campuses with effective bilingual education programs celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity in different ways. Banners and other important public displays at a successful school are written in a minimum of two languages. Cultural celebrations, especially associated with the cultures represented in the school, are conducted and integrated into the school’s curriculum. Teachers use cross-cultural interactions where students and teachers learn from each other’s differences. Instruction is based on the structured use of at least two languages.

Initially, the use of a specific language is based on the relative proficiency of the student in the two languages. In a transitional bilingual education program, teachers stress the need to develop reading and writing proficiency in the first language as a prerequisite to successful learning of English. Children’s books reflect the variety of cultures and benefits of diversity, and they are written in the languages used for instruction.

Challenge 12: Ensure and deliver grade-level content. Successful schools challenge English language learners with grade-level content. They are aware that content is the same as that expected in the mainstream curriculum; delivery is different. In the bilingual education classroom, delivery can occur in the native language or in both English and the native language. The education of English language learners is also guided by the same educational standards that have been adopted by the local district.

The selection of textbooks and other supplementary materials must be carefully scrutinized to ensure that these materials challenge English language learners at their grade level. Particular problems exist at the secondary level where English language learners are often denied access to regular science and mathematics courses because of poor English skills (McLoed, 1996). Successful schools conclude that English language learners are intellectually capable to learn this content. Schools must find ways of delivering this content by teaching in the native language, using sheltered instruction and other ESL methods. Anything less than grade-level content will retard their normal progress in school and block students from access to an equal educational opportunity.

Challenge 13: Promote instructional approaches that foster biliteracy development and content acquisition. Biliteracy development requires teachers to have a deep understanding of the role of the first language in the development of the second language. Teachers involved in delivering content instruction should be trained in second language teaching methodologies and be able to pace and modify instruction to make it comprehensible.

Collaborative and cooperative learning strategies provide opportunities for English language learners to interact with other students in meaningful and constructive ways that promote the use of biliteracy skills and cultural understanding by creating a forum for students to learn and appreciate each other’s cultural differences and similarities. Thematic units have been used effectively by some successful schools. A living skills curriculum reinforces the benefits of positive character traits personally and academically.

Research indicates that there is no set of instructional strategies that was present in every successful school that has been studied. Each used a variety of instructional strategies and collaboratively adjusted instructional strategies to achieve better academic results. They were, however, guided by a shared and dynamic vision of success that kept them seeking for more effective methods to deliver instruction.

Framing the Change: A Principal’s Major Task

Bolman and Deal identify four sides of leadership that must be adjusted when introducing or adapting a school innovation (1997). Uprooting, adjusting or creating instructional design that is consistent with the attributes of a successful instructional program for a diverse student population requires a re-examination of the four sides of leadership and how action on the part of the principal can set the tone for successful change. These four sides of leadership include (1) structural, (2) human resource, (3) political and (4) symbolic leadership.

Bolman and Deal state: “Ideally, managers combine multiple frames into a comprehensive approach to leadership. Wise leaders understand their strengths, work to expand them and build teams that can provide leadership in all four modes” (1997).

Below is a list of activities that a principal with a struggling transitional bilingual education program can implement to place the program on the road to recovery.

Structural Leadership – Uses organization designs that promote maximum efficiency and success.

  • Conceptually and physically integrate the bilingual education program to the mainstream curriculum.
  • Coordinate activities with grade level lead teachers to involve bilingual teachers in planning and implementing grade level instruction.
  • Redefine tasks and responsibilities to show how every staff member can share in the responsibility to increase the academic achievement of English language learners.
  • Develop policies and procedures that are consistent with equity-based excellence in education for all students, including English language learners.

Human Resource Leadership – Capitalizes on skills, attitudes, energy and commitment to reach goals.

  • Create a philosophy and a vision of equity-based excellence as the cornerstone of a renewed way of seeing English language learners and their potential for success.
  • Map existing interpersonal relationships that promote the school’s vision; create relationships that form partnerships among teachers and personnel including the ones who were never before involved in these matters.
  • Nurture these relationships, redirect those relationships that are counterproductive, and celebrate relationships and partnerships that promote the school’s vision and create a sense of family among all staff.

Political Leadership – Organizations respond to the whims of political interests.

  • Plan overall strategies to address the hostility and indifference that exists in the campus and in the community toward bilingual education as a viable response to the needs of English language learners.
  • Establish and nurture a critical mass of staff members who promote equity-based excellence for English language learners.
  • Work with the “opposition” by creating coalitions of individuals with differing views on tasks where they share views. Being able to work together builds a bond that allows for differences to be openly discussed and negotiated.

Symbolic Leadership – A perspective guided by meaning, belief and personal commitment.

  • Unite around the school’s vision and discuss its meaning for all students, including English language learners. Come up with manifestations of this new definition at all levels of the school operation. For example, English language learners may also be gifted and talented. Therefore, the school should manage to adjust the existing gifted and talented program to be inclusive of students with other diverse needs.
  • Create stories about the successes in education at the campus. Create stories about reasons for celebrating. Talk about ways to create more stories that relate successes with students, including English language learners.
  • Divide the school into “houses,” each named after a university campus. The school’s primary reason for calling each “house” after a university is to provide an alternative to affiliation with gangs and other dysfunctional groups in the community or in school.

The knowledge about what to do is easy once these major leadership challenges are addressed. Principals in struggling campuses must communicate the need and commitment to improve the quality of the instruction at the campus. The task is not easy, yet it is not impossible. Research shows that campuses have taken a 180-degree turn changing from a low performing to an exemplary status where all staff are one family having a powerful, positive impact on the lives of children.

Checklist of Attributes that Contribute to School and Student Success

Conducive Environment

  • Values and celebrates student linguistic and cultural diversity (Lein, Johnson and Ragland, 1997; Ogbu and Matute-Bianchi, 1986).
  • Values all students, communicates high expectations (Lein, Johnson and Ragland, 1997; Villarreal and Solís, 1998).
  • Integrates instructional program and all students in the overall school operation (Berman et al., 1995; McLoed, 1996; Tikunoff et al., 1991).

Spirited and Determined Leadership

  • Supports educational equity and excellence for all students (Carter and Chatfield, 1986; Lucas, Henze and Donato, 1990).
  • Imparts a sense of urgency for maintaining high academic standards for all students (Lein, Johnson and Ragland, 1997).
  • Nurtures and sustains a family environment that is inclusive of parents, students and teachers (McLoed, 1996).
  • Expects and exerts pressure to excel (Goldenberg and Sullivan, 1994).

Dedicated and Knowledgeable Staff

  • All staff members “walk the talk” and team up to excel in the bilingual education program.
  • Teachers consistently receive training and are provided technical assistance when the need arises.
  • Teachers receive training that is aligned with the instructional plan prepared for English language learners (Milk, Mercado and Sapiens, 1992).
  • Teachers are equipped with strategies and techniques consistent with phonetic and meaning-based approaches.
  • Recruitment procedures are strict and seek the best qualified staff for the bilingual education staff (Maroney, 1998).
  • Teachers demonstrate a commitment to make education work for English language learners.
  • Teachers receive training and know how to assess areas of student needs and plan instruction accordingly.

Partnering with Community and Families

  • Relationships with the community and families go beyond just helping at school; they are characterized by a strong desire to get parents involved in the educational process (Robledo Montecel et al., 1993).
  • Community and families are perceived as assets that should be capitalized on and integrated into the school resources in a manner that values and seeks their contributions.
  • Families play a key role in promoting the cognitive and academic development of their children, and their contributions should be coordinated and integrated into the learning environment (Montemayor, 1997).
  • Schools care for the welfare of families by providing opportunities to access various social services available in the community.
  • Schools and families join forces to advocate children’s rights (Robledo Montecel et al., 1993).

Accessible Learning Environment

  • Schools use a diversity of teaching approaches to ensure that all children have access to learning in the most efficient and effective manner (Lucas, Henze and Donato, 1990).
  • The learning environment is modified in a number of ways to accommodate the varying needs of English language learners (Berman et al., 1995).
  • Classroom teachers use family and community’s “funds of knowledge” to base and enrich instruction.

Program and Curriculum Alignment

  • Schools have a clear understanding of levels of language and content instruction and use these levels for instructional planning to facilitate transition and efficient progress (Berman et al., 1995).
  • Teachers from different grade levels produce and implement a seamless curriculum that flows uninterrupted (McLoed, 1996).
  • Goals and objectives for the bilingual program flow from the mainstream curriculum; learning standards are not lowered.
  • Schools support students exiting from the bilingual program and transitioning to the mainstream curriculum, and schools address obstacles that could lead to failure in the mainstream program.

Capitalizing on Students’ Language and Cultural Resources

  • Schools celebrate and value a diversity of languages and cultures as community assets and valuable to the national interest (Lucas and Katz, 1994).
  • Schools acknowledge the power of the first language in learning English faster and more effectively (Moll and Díaz, 1985).

Inclusive and Comprehensive Curriculum

  • The curriculum is balanced to ensure that its literacy program develops basic and higher order thinking skills (McLoed, 1996).
  • Teaching approaches are eclectic, customizing instruction with phonetic and meaning-based approaches (Adams and Bruck, 1995; Purcell-Gates, 1996).
  • Schools ensure that reading comprehension and writing skills are developed in the strongest language and provide opportunities to demonstrate their transfer in English (Wong-Fillmore et al., 1985).
  • Instruction of skills and concepts addressed in the state-mandated test or standardized tests receive special attention through explicit skill instructional activities.
  • Time is allocated specifically for explicit basic and higher order thinking skills instruction; time schedules vary accordingly (Escamilla, 1994).
  • Teachers provide opportunities for student-initiated and student-directed learning activities.
  • Teachers relate instruction to practical and meaningful student experiences (Pease-Alvarez, Garcia and Espinosa, 1991).
  • English language learners have access to grade-level content; curriculum is not watered down (McLoed, 1996).

Instructional Practices and Strategies

  • Teachers use periodic, systematic and multiple student assessment measures to inform the instructional decision-making process (Valdez-Pierce and O’Malley, 1992).
  • Assessment is conducted in the student’s native language and English when appropriate (McCollum, 1999).
  • Student assessment results are discussed and used collaboratively with other teachers to plan and coordinate instruction (McCollum, 1999).
  • Successful classrooms use cooperative and collaborative approaches to learning (Calderón, Hertz-Lazarowitz and Slavin, 1996).
  • Teachers build-in redundancy in critical skills areas (Saunders et al., 1998).
  • Ample opportunities are provided for English language learners to hear adults who are native language speakers at both the social and academic levels (Calderón, Hertz-Lazarowitz and Slavin, 1996; Gersten, 1996).
  • Students are provided opportunities for interaction with English-speaking peers (McLoed, 1996).
  • Questioning strategies require students to clarify and expand on understanding of text (Gersten, 1996).
  • Teachers develop students’ metacognitive skills and provide opportunities for students to show competence in selecting and using metacognitive skills (Dianda and Flaherty, 1995).
  • Teachers check that instruction is comprehensible and modify instruction accordingly.

Equity-Based Education Excellence

  • English language learners are integrated in both academic and social contexts with native English-speaking students (McLoed, 1996).
  • The instructional program for English language learners maintains the high academic standards required for all students.
  • Bilingual education and ESL programs are an integral part of the mainstream curriculum.
  • Bilingual education and ESL programs have the facilities and resources available to do what it must do.

Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D.
Intercultural Development Research Association, 2001


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Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at

[©2001, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 2001 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]