Emergent Bilingual Leadership Teams: Distributed Leadership in CUNY-NYSIEB Schools


Unlike many countries where there is a central ministry of education that determines educational practices in schools, the educational system of the U.S. is highly decentralized, leaving a wide range of decisions regarding curriculum and instruction in the hands of states and local educational authorities. Although restricted by state and other local regulations, school leaders in the U.S. can be influential in shaping a school’s language policy and the overall quality of schooling that emergent bilinguals receive (Ascenzi-Moreno, Hesson & Menken, 2016; DeMatthews & Izquierdo, 2017; Garcia & Menken, 2015; Hunt, 2011; Menken & Solorza, 2014; Reyes, 2006; Rodriguez & Alanis, 2011; Scanlan & López, 2012; Theoharis & O’Toole, 2011; Wiemelt & Welton, 2015). It is for this reason that school leaders are a central focus in the work of CUNY-NYSIEB (City University of New York-New York State Initiative on Emergent Bilinguals).

In this chapter, we describe how distributed leadership structures were put into place in CUNY-NYSIEB schools across New York State through the establishment of what we term “Emergent Bilingual Leadership Teams” (EBLTs). Distributed leadership refers to leadership that is shared among several people who are all involved in decision-making (Leithwood, Mascall & Strauss, 2009; Spillane, 2006). Accordingly, CUNY-NYSIEB adopted this more expansive definition of school leadership to include all members of a school’s EBLT. We begin this chapter by locating our efforts within existing research about distributed leadership. We then describe the work of EBLTs in CUNY-NYSIEB schools generally, before offering a detailed example of distributed leadership within one CUNY-NYSIEB high school.

The importance of distributed leadership

U.S. schooling in recent history has been characterized by restrictive language education policies, which limit the use of students’ home languages in instruction (Gándara & Hopkins, 2010; McField, 2014; Menken, 2013; Wiley & Garcia, 2016). Federal education policies have emphasized high-stakes testing in English, and this has resulted in a causal link between high-stakes testing and the dismantling of bilingual education programs (Garcia & Kleifgen, 2018; Menken & Solorza, 2014; Palmer et al., 2015). This means that in most U.S. school systems, there will be pressure on school leaders to offer English-only instruction. School leaders interested in offering bilingual approaches must therefore be able to navigate these pressures to preserve and protect spaces within their schools for languages other than English. By making the home language practices of all students central in their education, the CUNY-NYSIEB project demands leadership that is able to go against restrictive policy tides so as to disrupt English-only norms as well as strict language separation in bilingual education programs.

The unfortunate reality, however, is that few school administrators have the preparation they need to do so. Meeting the educational needs of emergent bilinguals necessitates school leaders who are knowledgeable about bilingualism, bilingual education, and about their school’s emergent bilingual student population (Brooks, Adams & Morita-Mullaney, 2010; Howard et al., 2018; Hunt, 2011; Menken & Solorza, 2015; Scanlan & López, 2012).

There is a body of research arguing for distributed leadership (also known as collaborative leadership) in the education of emergent bilinguals (Ascenzi-Moreno, Hesson & Menken, 2016; Brooks, Adams & Morita-Mullaney, 2010; DeMatthews & Izquierdo, 2017; Hunt, 2011; Scanlan & López, 2012; Tupa & McFadden, 2009). While taking this approach would not altogether eliminate the need for school administrators to be knowledgeable and prepared, it would share the responsibilities of the school principal with others, and bring educators with expertise in bilingual education and language learning into positions of leadership within a school’s leadership structure. Rather than thinking of leadership as concentrated in one individual, distributed leadership considers leadership as interactive and shared among multiple official and unofficial leaders (Leithwood, Mascall & Strauss, 2009). According to Spillane (2006), viewing leadership from a distributed perspective “means that education policymakers must acknowledge that the work of leading schools involves more than the leadership of the school principal” (Spillane, 2006, p. 101).

Thus, leadership according to this perspective is not limited to the principal, allowing for decisions to be determined by teachers with expertise in language learning—such as bilingual and English as a new language (ENL—also known as English as a second language |ESL|) teachers. Brooks, Adams and Morita-Mullaney (2010) examine formal and informal school leaders in schools serving emergent bilinguals, not only noting the important role of teachers as informal leaders but also critiquing traditional school designs where teachers are typically not well-positioned within a school’s leadership structures to make schoolwide decisions. The role of teachers as unofficial school leaders is significant, as teachers often act as language policymakers (de Jong, 2011; Menken & García, 2010; Malsbary, 2016; Palmer et al., 2015). Research findings show that when teachers of emergent bilinguals interpret and implement policies in their classrooms, they create new policies in the process, and are thereby language policymakers in their own right (Menken & García, 2010). Recognizing their significant role in language policy making, distributed leadership repositions teachers from being unofficial school leaders to official ones.

Distributed leadership in schools with emergent bilinguals has been found as essential in supporting the needs of these students. In her investigation of successful dual language bilingual programs that have been sustained over time, Hunt (2011) identified collaborative and shared leadership as one of four leadership structures (along with mission, trust, and flexibility). Similarly, in their case study of a bilingual public school, Ascenzi-Moreno and Flores (2012) found that distributed leadership involving shared decision-making among school leaders, teachers, parents, and students allowed for the development of flexible and responsive language education policies that the authors argued reflected the academic and social needs of students. Ascenzi-Moreno, Hesson and Menken (2016) examined the process of school reform in three CUNY-NYSIEB schools engaged in efforts to develop and implement multilingual language education policies that would replace monolingual ones. They found that these efforts were associated with changes in school leadership practices as well. Specifically, they found that distributed leadership replaced hierarchical leadership in schools seeking to support bi/multilingualism and adopt policies promoting multilingualism.

Moreover, the literature is convincing that distributed leadership in schools with emergent bilinguals is key to ensuring student needs are met by bringing bilingual educators and other educators with expertise in language learning and emergent bilingual students into decision-making positions. It is for this reason that CUNY-NYSIEB promoted the adoption of distributed leadership structures in participating schools, as described below.

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