• By Dr. Lizdelia Piñón • IDRA Newsletter • April 2022 •Dr. Lizdelia Piñón

As I worked toward earning my education administration certificate at a university in Chicago, I reflected on how my leadership efforts serve emergent bilingual students (English learners). Because I had been a bilingual educator for many years, I had established ways to help my students be successful. Also to stay current, I regularly reviewed research on the latest methods, strategies and systems for educating emergent bilingual students.

I noticed that the content of many of my educational leadership classes did not include information about serving emergent bilingual students. Ways to serve these students’ specific linguistic needs and embrace their culture received no attention in any of my courses’ case studies or lectures presented by the faculty. They were not mentioned in discussions about how we could help all students receive an equitable and excellent, high-quality education.

I also noted that equity-centered concepts were not applied across all schools and classrooms. Like teachers, few school administrators receive preparation to serve emergent bilingual students.

As a result, emergent bilingual students are left behind, as seen in their low four-year graduation rate of 69%, compared to 86% of other students nationally (NCES, 2020). On the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), there was a 33-point difference in fourth-grade reading proficiency between emergent bilingual students and their peers. Only 10% of emergent bilingual fourth-graders and 4% of eighth-graders scored at or above proficiency in reading. In contrast, among non-emergent bilingual  students 39% of fourth-graders and 36% of eighth-graders scored at or above proficiency in reading. (White, et al., 2021; Schwartz, 2021)

Moreover, the pandemic disproportionately affected emergent bilingual students (Sahakyan & Cook, 2021). They were less likely than their peers to have the devices, connectivity and digital literacy skills essential to access their schools’ virtual learning programs (Williams & Marcus, 2022).

Piecemealing equity in education without structured programming is clearly not working. School leaders must be knowledgeable about bilingualism, bilingual education and their schools’ emergent bilingual student populations (Brooks, et al., 2010; Sánchez & Menken, 2020).  It is time to boost standards with culturally sustaining, equity-centered pedagogies (Paris, et al., 2017).

Caldera (2021) discusses how the term culturally sustaining practices captures IDRA’s vision for ensuring students receive equitable schooling. Culturally sustaining school leaders create policies for programs and language, set and monitor expectations, and coach educators to facilitate and successfully implement culturally sustaining instruction in the classroom (2021). They also set high standards and expectations for academic performance regardless of how educators perceive the performance abilities of students of diverse groups.

One culturally sustaining practice is to build on the home languages represented in the school community. Translanguaging strategies, for example, can involve posting cognate walls in different areas of the school, providing content materials in home languages, using bilingual glossaries or dictionaries when students are literate in their home language, intentionally having teachers group students who share a common language, and sending bilingual homework rather than in English only.

School leaders must be able to create and maintain a climate free from any implicit biases toward students regardless of race, ethnicity or native language. The school community must actively engage its marginalized families and communities to improve decision-making and solution-seeking schoolwide. Families’ cultural histories represent critical aspects of school and community history.

Culturally sustaining leaders do not merely ensure teachers provide emergent bilingual students with a strong multilingual, multicultural education. They also facilitate the cultural conversion in the education environment to ensure that emergent bilingual students succeed and that the assets they bring receive respect and attention from all stakeholders, including educators, families, other students, and members of the school’s external community. These students will, of course, also impact the future progress and economic status of the nation (IDRA, 2021).

The IDRA EAC-South rolled out a set of materials on culturally sustaining instruction and leadership to support educators with tools for challenging, investigating and embracing a vision for engaging with families and students from marginalized communities (2021). The materials include an easy-to-reference list of equity-centered pedagogies to help school leaders determine how to serve their particular student populations better. For more information see Four Leverage Points for Culturally Sustaining Practices and the IDRA EAC-South website.


Brooks, K., Adams, S.R., & Morita-Mullaney, T. (2010). Creating Inclusive Learning Communities for ELL Students: Transforming School Principals’ Perspectives. Theory Into Practice, 49(2), 145-151.

Caldera, A. (May 2021). Equity-Centered Pedagogies: An Overview of Terminology. IDRA.

IDRA. (2021). Culturally Sustaining Practices in Four Critical Levels-Overview. IDRA.

National Assessment of Education Progress. (2022). NAEP Data Explorer, website. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

NCES. (July 24, 2020). Table 1. Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), by race/ethnicity and selected demographic characteristics for the United States, the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico: School year 2018-19. U.S. Department of Education.

Paris, D., Alim, S.H., Genishi, C., & Alvermann, D.E. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. Teachers College Press.

Sahakyan, N., & Cook, H.G. (2021). Examining English Learner Testing, Proficiency, and Growth: Before and Throughout the COVID-19 Pandemic (Report No. RR-2021-1). Wisconsin Center for Education Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Sánchez, M.T., & Menken, K. (2020). “Emergent Bilingual Leadership Teams: Distributed Leadership in CUNY-NYSIEB Schools,” in City University of New York-New York State Initiative on Emerging Bilinguals (Ed.), Translanguaging and Transformative Teaching for Emergent Bilingual Students: Lessons from the CUNY-NYSIEB Project (Chapter 5). Routledge.

Schwartz, S. (May 4, 2021). Most States Fail to Measure Teachers’ Knowledge of the ‘Science of Reading,’ Report Says. Education Week.

White, S., Sabatini, J., Park, B.J., Chen, J. Bernstein, J., & Li, M. (2021). The 2018 NAEP Oral Reading Fluency Study (Report No. NCES 2021-025). U.S. Department of Education.

Williams, C., & Marcus, M. (2021). Pandemic Response to Pandemic Recovery: Helping English Learners Succeed this Fall and Beyond. TCF: The Century Foundation.

Lizdelia Piñón, Ed.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at lizdelia.pinon@idra.org.

[©2022, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2022 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.]