Leadership for Institutional Change: How Educational Leaders Can Support Undocumented and Unaccompanied Students

The authors explore the critical role of school leadership in driving the institutional change efforts of a U.S. school district to better support immigrant students.

Reviewed by Sabrina Wong


Many undocumented and documented youth, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, face significant barriers to educational opportunities due in part to racism and other intersecting systems of oppression. In this article, the authors conduct a literature review on educational practices for immigrant youth. Both authors work in the Urbana School District 116 (USD116) and analyze the district’s institutional change efforts as a case study. They argue that school leadership must challenge the role schools have played in the past as “vehicles of assimilation to the majoritarian, white middle class standard of schools.”

Based on the case study, the authors describe a race-conscious approach to school leadership across four areas of analysis:

  1. academic programming that is offered in multiple relevant languages and trainings that prepare educators for integrated language programs, 
  2. free social and political student support services through partnerships with local organizations, 
  3. support with transitioning to postsecondary schooling, and 
  4. robust leadership opportunities for undocumented and unaccompanied minor students.

Joseph T. Wiemelt is the Director of Equity & Secondary Bilingual Programs for USD116 and a Lecturer in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Wiemelt’s research includes bilingual education. Lucia Maldonado is the Latino Family Liaison for USD116. Maldonado’s work focuses on creating support systems for immigrant students.

Methods and Findings

Using the framework of Latinx Critical Race Theory (LatCrit), the authors analyze previous educational literature regarding the challenges and opportunities of educational equity for immigrant students. LatCrit builds on the framework of Critical Race Theory but specifically focuses on the “issues related to the resistance, oppression, and challenges faced by Latin@s” and emphasizes the role of “language, culture, and nation” as they relate to race. Although the authors advocate for LatCrit as an effective framework to better understand how language and xenophobia intersect with the educational challenges faced by immigrant students, they emphasize that immigrant groups have unique experiences even if they come from similar geographies.

Key challenges with schools supporting immigrant students in educational literature: 

  • School leadership that adopts a colorblind or race-neutral approach can force immigrant students to assimilate, ignoring the unique needs and strengths of these students.
  • Academic programming does not consider the work schedules of immigrant parents coupled with fear of deportation or undocumented status.
  • Monolingual teachers are undertrained and unprepared to provide the linguistic and social emotional support required for immigrant students.
  • School programming places limited emphasis on postsecondary transitions for immigrant youth.

Case Study

In addition to an educational literature review, the authors examine the case study of USD116, a PK-Adult public school district in Illinois with 4,500 students. 15% of these students are immigrants, and 71% are low-income. The authors analyze the past 10 years of USD116’s institutional change efforts within four areas of analysis.

Key elements of a race-conscious approach based on areas of analysis:

  • Academic programming should be culturally and linguistically designed to reflect school demographics. Dual-language immersion models can help students learn in their native languages while still learning English. To facilitate these programs, teachers should be bilingually trained. At USD116, teachers received training to better understand the potential traumas of immigrant students in order to support them more effectively. To ensure all employees were trained to work with immigrant students, USD116 hosted monthly sessions for employees to learn more about race and various systems of oppression.
  • Partnerships with local immigration community agencies enabled USD116 to support immigrant students and their families with access to legal, medical, and other support services. By partnering with community organizations and hosting workshops, the school district was better able to connect families with critical resources that may have been inaccessible otherwise.
  • Support with transitioning to postsecondary schools includes helping immigrant students understand financial aid options and connecting them with school options. USD116 partnered with the local community college to proactively introduce students to colleges and make the transition from high school easier.
  • Student leadership opportunities that focus on helping students express themselves and learn from each other can facilitate student connections. For example, at Urbana High School in USD116, students documented their stories through podcasts. This strengths-based approach to programming can help students recognize their leadership potential.


The institutional change efforts at USD116 provide key examples of how school leadership can more equitably support undocumented and unaccompanied minor students. Using a LatCrit framework, the authors discuss how colorblind or race neutral approaches to academic programming are inequitable for immigrant students. They instead advocate for several key efforts to drive institutional change, which include linguistically responsive academic programming, partnerships with local organizations to provide more comprehensive support services, postsecondary matriculation programming, and creation of more student leadership opportunities. These strategies are critical to driving educational equity for undocumented and unaccompanied minor students.


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