• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2019 •

Demographic changes in recent years have affected not just the numbers of English learners but also the communities where they reside. Many schools that once had few, if any, English learners, now have a sizeable English learner population. And other schools that had English learner students with a common home language now have a population speaking multiple languages.

As a result, many educators may feel unprepared to meaningfully serve English learner cognitive, linguistic and affective needs (Batalova & Alperin, 2018). This was the case in a South Carolina school district. Through the IDRA EAC-South, we developed customized online courses to prepare 1,800 teachers in 53 schools to serve English learners. We also worked with the district to build the capacity of instructional coaches and principals though onsite training sessions. This South Carolina district is just one example of leadership taking steps to ensure teachers are well prepared to work in diverse classrooms.

Principals need to play the role of change agents to prepare the school community to welcome and embrace these new students, who are eager to learn. This means principals innovate, inspire, empower and function as a servant leader to the entire educational community and the neighborhood served by the school (Avilés, 2016; New Leaders, 2013).

The Innovative Principal

Innovative school leaders publicly support and value culturally-sustaining teaching practices that infuse cultural and linguistic attributes as assets rather than deficits (Khalifa, et al., 2016; Orosco & Abdulrahim, 2017). These principals declare through their vision, belief system and actions that English learners can succeed in learning challenging, rigorous content through appropriate scaffolding and aligned instruction, delivery and genuine support.

Principals can take advantage of external resources and consulting available through universities, regional service centers and educational organizations like IDRA. Through collaboration with other stakeholders, principals can lead in identifying assets and needs of new populations and plan accordingly.

As innovators, principals lead their staffs to adapt existing curriculum and instructional materials to increase relevancy and effectiveness of English learner instruction (Avilés, 2016). Clearly, educators must develop students’ proficiency in the English language. But students benefit even more with proficiency in both languages. Developing biliteracy requires precise design and intentionality (Escamilla, et al., 2013). Campus principals deliberately guide fidelity of implementation for their school’s biliteracy program design as students learn academic content in both languages.

The Inspiring Principal

As inspirational leaders, principals encourage teachers and other school staff to plan collaboratively to serve a more diverse student population. Planning must start with an equity-centered leadership by energizing school staff to create a positive culture of acceptance and respect for diverse cultural backgrounds.

Effective principals set expectations for teachers to plan lessons for any subject in ways that integrate cultural practices and norms reflected by the diversity of the class population. Teachers must ensure that students are equipped with the language structures and vocabulary essential to learn content that is expressed in academic language.

Principals also inspire students to welcome newcomers and promote the value of diversity as a way of life. Adopting the understanding that immigrant English learners bring a multiplicity of experiences from their respective countries enriches the fabric of the neighborhood and the school community. When principals advocate and sustain this truth, they create opportunities for students to engage in interactions where they learn about each other’s cultures. This includes providing opportunities for extracurricular activities, so that students can develop language fluency while building confidence. Thus, newcomers can feel at ease and open to take risks in their learning as they build relationships with their peers.

The Empowering Principal

Principals empower school staff by respecting and requesting their ideas. In collaboration with community and parents, equity-centered leaders set school standards for respecting diversity in the school. As a community team, they establish a culture of high expectations and create a safe environment that builds on neighborhoods as funds of knowledge, strength and creativity. This is critical, particularly for recent immigrant English learners, who are adjusting to a new environment and culture.

Empowering principals are aware of the expertise and experience of the teachers and ensure they have the knowledge and skillsets to teach English learners in their classrooms. To build capacity, leaders provide purposeful professional development for all teachers within different content areas. And they engage students in social language development supported by auxiliary, cafeteria and support personnel.

In professional learning community meetings, teachers, grade level leaders, administrators, and instructional facilitators and coaches should examine the data and determine if instruction has been aligned to the curriculum and assessments.

They also should review the progress or challenges immigrant English learners face and discuss how to resolve any gaps between English learners and other students. Principals and teachers must create opportunities for innovative practices, collaboration between district support personnel and school teachers to plan, coach and mentor teachers, and provide genuine support systems.

Empowering principals create a shared understanding of English learner needs and educator commitment to the asset-based practices that support them.

The Servant Leader Principal

As servant leaders, principals gain the trust of the community and students. They can begin by getting to know each child, learning to pronounce their names and ensuring that “Americanizing” their names is not acceptable for school staff.

Servant leader principals also model for teachers a process for gaining trust with the newcomer community. This involves learning about the different cultures represented in the school, integrating cultural practices into the curriculum, and communicating regularly with parents in their native language.

Furthermore, servant leader principals actively welcome parents as partners. Principals lead in making parents feel they can communicate with the school staff in the language they understand. Any communication for parents must be in their language(s) so that can stay connected and well informed. And staff can help parents and newcomer students learn how to navigate their new U.S. school system that may be very different from their own.

Strong leaders understand that developing high levels of proficiency for English learners opens many doors to other ways of thinking about the world and the possibilities of being able to establish positive relationships with people from different parts of the world.

Great leaders build cognitive, cultural, academic and economic benefits for English learners to strive and make their communities a better place to live.


Avilés, N. (March 2016). Leaders Turn Around Schools – Transformational Equity Focus Makes College Readiness a Priority. IDRA Newsletter.

Avilés, N. (November-December 2016). Fostering Excellence through Social Justice Principles in Schools Serving English Learners. IDRA Newsletter.

Batalova, J., & Alperin, E. (2018). Immigrants in the United States with the Fastest-Growing Foreign-Born Populations. Migration Policy Institute.

Escamilla, K., Hopewell, S., & Butvilofsky, S. (2013). Biliteracy from the Start: Literacy Squared in Action. Philadelphia, Pa.: Carlson Publishing.

Khalifa, M.A., Gooden, M.A., & Davis, J.E. (December, 2016). Culturally Responsive School Leadership: A Synthesis of the Literature. Review of Educational Literature.

New Leaders. (July, 2013). Change Agents: How States Can Develop Effective School Leaders. New Leaders.

Orosco, M.J., & Abdulrahim, N.A. (2017). Culturally Responsive Evidence-Based Practices with English Learners with Learning Disabilities: A Qualitative Case Study. Educational Borderlands.

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and co-directs IDRA’s Re-Energize project. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at nilka.aviles@idra.org.

[©2019, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2019 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.]