26 SES 01 B, Educational Leadership In The Context Of Migration, Social Justice And Vulnerable Populations
Over the past five years in particular, it has become clear that the refugee crisis is global in its extent, yet specific responses to this crisis are most often local in nature. While politicians around the world engage in military action and diplomacy to resolve the issues creating this crisis, it h been left to local school districts and community agencies to cope with the new arrivals (Wimelius, M.; Eriksson, M.’ Isaksson, J. & M. Ghazinour, 2017). As the heads of these school districts, superintendents are responsible for how, and to what extent, teachers and building level administrators respond to the needs of refugee students. Although accurate statistics on the numbers of refugee children in public schools are difficult to obtain, these schools provide critical spaces in which the refugee students interact with their native-born teachers and peers. What happens in these contexts may have a significant, and arguably, lifelong impact on teachers’ and students’ images of themselves and one another, significant implications for the communities in which they live.
This study draws on social ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Paat, 2013) and the school-community linkages framework (Johnson & Chrispeels, 2010) to explore the responses of school superintendents in Sweden and the United States to the arrival of refugee students. In particular, the study examines the extent to which the local, state/regional, and national contexts in which they worked, facilitated or hindered superintendents’ ability to respond to the needs of refugee students.
The extant literature on superintendents reflects a wide variety of topics, including : administrative styles (Hoyle, 2005), the gender imbalamce in the profession (Brunner, 2000), turnover rates (Buchannan, 2006); and professional credentialing standards (Holloway, 2001). Despite the volume of research on the superintendency, there are virtually no studies on the nature and extent of superintendents’ advocacy and/or political activism on behalf of marginalized students in general or refugees in particular, with the exception of a recent article by J. Hanna about superintendents in Canada (2013).
Drawing on data from two studies, we explored the nature and extent of advocacy and political activism displayed by superintendents in two Swedish districts and in two American states—Vermont and Texas. In particular, we sought to understand the factors that contribute to the nature and extent of advocacy and political activism that these superintendents engaged in, as part of their efforts to provide inclusive and welcoming environments for refugee students. National and state/regional politics played a significant role in facilitating or constraining the actions of the superintendents. The sharp increase in anti-refugee sentiment in both countries at the national level, made it difficult for the superintendents to assure refugee students and their families that the schools were safe places for them to be. Despite this intensifying animosity toward asylum seekers, the Swedish Government provided significantly more resources to the communities and schools in which the refugees were placed than did the United States Government. State/regional policies among the three sites differed substantially, with Vermont legislators demonstrating strong resistance to national refugee policies at one end of the continuum, and Texas legislators, generally supportive of these policies at the other. The Swedish superintendents were closer to their Vermont counterparts in terms of advocacy, but similar to Texas superintendents with respect to political activism. While acknowledging the impact of national and state/regional policies toward refugees on the extent of the superintendents’ advocacy and/or political activism on behalf of the refugees, our study also suggests that superintendents’ personal identities (i.e. as immigrants themselves) or previous experiences with diversity, played a critical role in shaping their activist responses toward refugees.
The data for this paper were drawn from two exploratory studies, the first was conducted during a two-year period (from 2017 to 2018) and focused on four superintendents, two from northern Vermont, in the United States, and two from northern Sweden. The study examined the responses of these superintendent to the unexpected arrival of unprecedented numbers of refugees in their communities. The data collected for this study included personal interviews with superintendents, school board members, teachers, and school liaison coordinators and document analyses of related, publicly-available materials such as school district websites and newsletters, minutes and videos of school board meetings, community newspapers, and television reports. The data were coded using Dedoose, for the purpose of identifying emergent themes, and were then shared with the superintendents for the purpose of verifying the trustworthiness of the findings. The second study (conducted in January 2019) was a preliminary exploration into whether and how national, state, and local political contexts facilitated or hindered the responses of the American superintendents in two different states (Vermont and Texas) to the refugee students in their districts. Participants included the superintendents from northern Sweden and Vermont who had participated in the first study, and nine additional superintendents from Texas, two of whom were past recipients of the Texas Superintendent of the Year Award. Data collection included individual and focus group interviews that were recorded, transcribed, and then analyzed for emerging themes, using Dedoose. In addition, both Vermont superintendents and two of their Texas counterparts were asked to contribute individual reflection papers regarding the factors that influenced their own advocacy and/or activism on behalf of refugees as well as their analysis of the factors influencing the actions of their counterparts in the other state. As with the first study, the emergent themes were then shared with all of the superintendents for the purpose of verifying the trustworthiness of the findings.
In concluding our study, we acknowledge the many challenges associated with responding to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers, while focusing on the ways in which policies at the national, state/regional, and local level can facilitate or constrain local efforts to respond to these individuals. The alignment of policies at the national, state/region and local levels can be a powerful factor in supporting and advancing the work of school superintendents with the students and families they serve. When, however, national or state/regional policies conflict with the democratic values associated with public schools at the local level, superintendents are confronted with complex decisions regarding whether and to what extent, they will challenge these policies. While acknowledging the impact of national and state/regional policies toward refugees on the extent of the superintendents’ advocacy and/or political activism on behalf of the refugees, our study also suggests that superintendents’ personal identities (i.e. as immigrants themselves) or previous experiences with diversity, played a critical role in shaping their activist responses toward refugees. Responding to the serious challenges that can result from such a misalignment of policies will likely require superintendents who have considerable political acumen for detecting both the intended and unintended consequences of policies, and who also understand the implications of these policies for the diverse populations they serve. Such advocacy will require courageous resistance and a high degree of interpersonal skill on the part of superintendents who are committed to creating multiple, supportive linkages among the complex systems within which they work. The capacity of schools to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all students within their communities will be dependent, in part, upon their superintendent’s ability to preserve the core democratic mission of their schools, despite working within systems that may not support the same goals.
Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 23(8), 954–966. Brunner, C. (2000). Principles of Power : Women Superintendents and the Riddle of the Heart (p. 200). Ithaca: State University of New York Press. Buchanan, B. (2006). Turnover at the top :superintendent vacancies and the urban school . Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Education. Hanna, P. (2013). Conflicts of Interest: A Case Study Exploring Constraints on Educational Leaders’ Agency as Representatives of Refugee Interests.Leadership and Policy in Schools,12(2), 146–173. https://doi.org/10.1080/15700763.2013.815783 Holloway, J. (2001). Setting standards for the school superintendent. Educational Leadership, 58(5), 84–85. Hoyle, J. (2005). The superintendent as CEO : standards-based performance . Thousand Oaks, Calif: Corwin Press. Johnson, E. & Chrispeels, J. (2010). Linking the central office and its schools for reform. Educational Administration Quarterly. 46(5), 738-775. Paat, Y. F. (2013). Working with immigrant children and their families: an application of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory. Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 23(8), 954–966. Wimelius, M.; Eriksson, M.; Isaksson, J. & M. Ghazinour. (2017). Swedish Reception of Unaccompanied Refugee Children—Promoting Integration? Int. Migration & Integration (2017) 18: 143.
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