From Foster Kid to Education Leader

The lesson learned on his journey? Compassion makes a big difference.

by Dr. Rod Berger

Dr. David Vroonland has quite a story to tell. He was born into extreme poverty and bounced from family to family for the first decade of his life. The only real constant during his tumultuous upbringing was going to public school, and it provided the glue that kept his life together. Now, as the superintendent of Mesquite Independent School District on the east side of Dallas, he brings his passion for kids to his entire district - especially kids from troubled backgrounds. David believes that caring and engaging with children is far more important than any state-mandated standardized test. As he puts it, “You can impact lives ─ even substantially disrupted lives ─ by caring deeply about them and having joy in what you do in that classroom.”

Unfortunately, David’s story is not unique. There are many children today going down similar paths to David’s on their journey to growing up. Even years later, there remains the reality that for most of them, the only constant will be public school.

David’s tale is a powerful one, but what is most remarkable is how his situation pushed him into a career in education. What started out as a teaching stint eventually steered into administration, something he never dreamed of as a kid.

Interview Transcript:

Rod Berger:  David, I sat in the room at TPAC (Texas Performance Assessment Consortium) in Texas earlier this summer and you really jumped out, not only because of your level of participation, but the passion with which you communicated the needs around community-based accountability systems and the impact on students, parents, and school leaders.

I want to start with the passion side of this. Let's talk about your story and what led you to be the leader of a district. I won't give the punch line but I heard some of your backstory in the meeting that you invited me to following that TPAC meeting.

Tell me a little bit about your background and how you think that played a role in where you are today in Mesquite.

David Vroonland: As I've shared with a lot of folks, my background is not a typical one. Sadly and unfortunately, we see a lot of people, children especially, who share some commonality with my experience. I'll start with what that experience looked like.

I was born into extreme poverty ─ a single parent, single mom. The father was kind of in and out but I don't believe they were married. I don't know the specifics of that because, by age two, I'd left that family. By age three, I'd left another family. Also by age three, I was in a new foster family and, at age ten, I was adopted by an entirely different family. So within the first ten years of my life, I literally had four ─ maybe more ─ different families.

That's a lot of disruption in a young man’s life and a lot of instability that has to be filled somehow. Even in that unique experience, I was so blessed because three things filled my life that made such a huge impact on my ability to be who I am today.

One is that you have someone who loves you. I had the good fortune, even in that setting, of having parents, each and every time, who loved me. But more than that, with that much instability, you need people in your community to express love for people like that. And they do that in a variety of ways.

I had the good fortune of having teachers, ministers, and community members who loved me. I still reflect on a Christmas Day of people bringing Christmas toys into my home when I was about six or seven years old. I was astonished that these men did this, and they didn't even know me.

That was such a huge impact in my life because it was an expression of love for a young person. And it's been in my mind ever since. I don't believe it will ever go away. It's one of those things that has dictated the direction of my life.

The other thing is that you have to have a belief in something that is larger than yourself. Certainly, that can be faith-based, and I believe it is. For me, it definitely is.

It also has to be based in principles. These principles are things that provide parameters for young people to live within. One of the things that I struggled with regarding schools lately is that because of accountability, we've moved away from one of the key elements of schooling.

Thomas Jefferson said it this way, “The purpose of a general education is to enable every man to determine for himself that which will secure or endanger their freedom.”

Those principles of life are key and we need to understand those things. I had the good fortune of having both faith experiences that allow that to occur. I learned some really important principles to life. But also in education. In the education setting, I learned how to work with people, how to respect others, and how to respect people’s way of thinking. Those are things that I think had disappeared due, in large parts, to accountability ─ which I'll talk about in a little bit.

Lastly, most importantly, you have to have a public education system. I had a pretty difficult start in life and it led me down the pathway of education. I had no desire to be an administrator. I wasn’t the least bit interested in that but I was passionate about the education of young people. I'm absolutely passionate.

And I've had some wonderful experiences.Thanks to my wife who was a psychologist in the Air Force I was able to go to different places and experience different young people in different settings from Texas to D.C. to even Japan. Those experiences really enlightened my thinking a lot. I've learned through those experiences. But, most importantly, my passion just kept growing, especially around the needs of young people who weren’t advantaged by their birth in life. I really serve all kids but I must admit that’s a passion.

My pathway ended up in the U.S. suburbs a lot. But I felt like I would love an opportunity to be in a district with more of an urban setting just to really bear some of my thoughts in those environments. We do have a different treatment of kids in suburbia versus kids in urban settings. I think it's based on our preconceived notions of what urban kids can do over what suburban kids can do. I just don't buy into those notions. I wanted an opportunity to come in and have high impact in a larger urban district.

RB: Based on your background and the way in which you entered this world, I'm wondering about the impact of that sense of community that you almost had to embrace ─ noting the story of Christmas when you were six or seven. I wish that we could identify the power of community engagement when we think about the ways in which we can personalize learning experiences for young people who are in urban, rural, suburban settings in a manner that gives them purpose and meaning when they walk through the doors of their given school. That they are engaged because they feel loved. And that we are thinking about learning in that regard. It's not like a coach talking X's and O's or scores but it's about the participation.

In sports, they talk about the glue guy on the roster, that individual who may not be the most talented but there's something about their personality and the way in which they engage that heightens the experience for everybody.

I think we could probably look at that in the way in which we personalize learning and think about the ways in which you, as a young person, would want to be engaged to further support your own social-emotional learning through what most would call a “potentially turbulent” start to your own life.

DV: It's interesting that you noted that. I appreciate that. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way. But the community in everything we do is vital. In our district, we have an initiative called “Read Play Talk.” It's to really get into homes and to engage parents in the learning of their children ages zero (birth) to three. Then, we have our own pre-K initiative to get all kids on grade-level reading by third grade. We also have the advanced academic program.

But it all starts with community engagement. It's not the school. The school has its role but it is really the community engaging in its own people.

What's been really exciting about this is you're seeing it being embraced in Mesquite ISD. Read Play Talk is being embraced by the social services network. You're seeing it being embraced by businesses. You're seeing it being embraced by hospitals, by the city. Everybody is embracing it and doing their part around Read Play Talk.

What I love about it is it's not a strategy driven by the school district. Rather, the school district is setting the vision for the community and the community is designing its own strategies to have their role in ensuring that kids can read on grade level before they enter our schools.

So that whole idea of community engaging and loving their children ─  I guess it is connected to my past. A good observation on your part. I hadn’t thought about it that way. But our past does dictate a lot of our thinking. I think it is such a vital piece.

One of my concerns about accountability is that it takes that away. The way the accountability systems are structured, it becomes about the state. And I don't have a disrespect for the state. I don't want anyone to misinterpret what I'm saying, but we need to embrace it locally. We need to hold ourselves accountable to our children and to our communities, and the state’s role in that should be relatively limited.

So that's why I'm not a big proponent of the current system, amongst other reasons.

RB:  Let's close with this, Dave. If you were to write the moral of your education story, what would it be and what can we take from it? Not just as gentlemen like you and me who work in education but just as community members. What is the power of education on a young person’s trajectory in life?

DV:  This is not to create sympathy for myself, but I want to paint a picture. You're nine or almost ten years old and you're leaving a family you've been with for seven years. You have two paper grocery bags filled with all your possessions and you're in a back seat of a car and you're leaving that home and you're being driven to a new home a hundred miles away with a new family, new expectations, new name, new friends, and a new school.

One of the key sustaining pieces to this child’s life in that situation is the public school. I still remember Dr. Gerlitz. And this was years later. I think I was in eighth-grade science class. I still remember Dr. Gerlitz and many of my elementary teachers as well but Dr. Gerlitz strikes a point that is essential to this.

He just cared about every single child individually. I don't know how he was able to do that because I'm sure he had 180 kids, but he was able to show that and he had so much joy in what he did.

An expression that I love is the ability to share joy in that classroom. That's one of the things I want to see brought back ─ this sense of joy and happiness in learning ─ because it helps kids connect in a way that testing them simply doesn't. There are all sorts of evidence around this.

For me, I think that's the moral of the story. You can impact lives ─ even substantially disrupted lives ─ by caring deeply about them and having joy in what you do in that classroom.

About Dr. David Vroonland:

Dr. David Vroonland officially assumed his position as superintendent of Mesquite ISD on July 1, 2015. An educator for more than 30 years, Vroonland began his education career in 1986 as a teacher and coach in Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD. In 1991, he accepted a similar position at DuVal High school in Lanham, Md., followed by two and a half years as a coach and teacher in Akishima, Japan. In 1995, Vroonland returned to Texas to teach and coach at McNeil Junior High School in Wichita Falls ISD.

His administrative experience began in 1999 in Wichita Falls when he became an assistant principal at Zundy Junior High; he later became principal at Barwise Junior High. Vroonland moved to Allen High School in Allen ISD as house principal in 2003. He opened Ereckson Middle School in Allen as principal in 2004 before assuming the role of assistant superintendent of administrative services in Allen ISD in 2006. Most recently, Vroonland served as superintendent of Frenship ISD, which is located on the southwestern side of Lubbock County.

Follow David Vroonland on Twitter.

This article was originally published in the Huffington Post by Dr. Rod Berger.

 

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