Having travelled the globe, bringing education to students of all walks of life, he chose to come here. Former basketball coach, teacher, and child adopted from foster care and poverty at the age of 10, superintendent Dr. David Vroonland chose to travel here from Frenship ISD in order to better impact students who come from hard backgrounds.
This man welcomes students into his office with a hearty “come on back,” as he did when Anthony Robles and I walked into his office to talk to him about such issues as dress code and future goals for the school district.
Sydney Smith: What are your goals this year as Superintendent?
Dr. David Vroonland: “I would’ve said it’s to learn about the district and try to understand the various areas I want to see improvement in and work with people towards that, and it still is. But I’ve also moved that to the pre-K through grade 2 initiative to get every child on grade-level reading by grade three. It’s an important effort because of the substantial risks children are put at if they aren’t on grade-level reading by grade three and so we are creating a city-wide effort to focus on this and we’re going to have to get– not literally, but figuratively– into people’s homes before their children ever enter our schools to get them reading with their children and playing games with their children so that they can be prepared when they come into the schools. Obviously, it’s also to improve everything about Mesquite. It’s already a wonderful district, but I don’t come in to manage things, I come to make things better and that’s why I get hired and get paid what I get paid, so I take that very seriously. We are going to be starting a strategic plan here in December and then in May with the community to look at strategically what we want a graduate to look like five years from now, and then what do we need to put in place to help a graduate be that profile.”
Smith: Do you have any specific goals for the high schools?
Vroonland: “One is to review the facilities and see how they work for 21st-century learning. I’m a bit concerned that they’re somewhat small spaces and not as up-to-date spaces as I would like to see. I think students need to learn in a very collaborative manner and I think they need to learn in a way that ensures they’re communicating their knowledge with each other and learning from each other as well as from the teacher, and learning from accessing resources online. I want to see more of that. I know our teachers would like to make that happen, but can it happen with the facilities the way they are? Mesquite High is going to be one of the schools on the top of my list for some work. I’m not really a big fan of portables, so we’re already removing them all from West Mesquite and looking at removing them our middle schools and then Mesquite high next, perhaps, and further down the road, with further bonds, looking at the elementary schools, which we really need to get to. The other thing that’s really on my heart is to provide students with an entrepreneurial, innovative experience in their area of passion. Because people own businesses and operate businesses, and you need to know what that looks like, and you need to know what innovation looks like in music. Really, by grouping you by endorsements and letting you discover through each other, through research, and through experiences what entrepreneurialism looks like in areas that you have a passion for.”
Smith: Does that mean we will see more endorsement-specific classes?
Vroonland: “The endorsements could be blended or they could be separate, that’s where it’s unique to every district. In my previous district, we were actually doing it through the speech classes, which was required, so we were bundling kids by endorsements in their speech class. So we were bringing in speakers and they did research based on their endorsement. So we didn’t need to create a different class, we were able to use that structure so that they could learn about marketing, they could learn about innovation, and then present their speeches around their area of interest instead of just a general speech. Because then you’re doing extensive research and the other kids are hearing you and it spurs what I call a ‘what-if’ thinking. I want my students to be ‘what-if’ thinkers.”
Anthony Robles: So you support the Endorsement program?
Vroonland: “Yes. I think it’s really important for students to get a feel for what they want by as early as the eighth grade. Not necessarily what job you want, but by looking at your various interests, what endorsement that puts you in, and then looking at career opportunities. I think we’ve been looking at it backwards, like asking an eighth grader what career they want to have. They might not know, and you might not know as a senior, and that’s okay, but it’s important to kind of have a general understanding of where your passions lie. For example, when I was young, I did know. I either wanted to be a lawyer, a minister, or an educator. Well, all three of those are in the public service sector. So I would have been in the public service sector, learning about various opportunities, and that leads you to learning different ways of thinking and different potential futures.”
Robles: Obviously, there’s been lots of speculation and controversy regarding dress code. Can you please clarify your view on it?
Vroonland: “Dress code is simply not high on my priority list. It might be high on yours, and I respect that, and I’m always open to dialogue. I would hope that we are communicating the reason we have standardized dress to our students so they at least understand why we have that, and if we’re not, we need to. And if that doesn’t resonate any longer, there can always be a conversation, and it needs to be a civil conversation. But from my vantage point looking in, I see people that are dressed nicely, people who are representing their school, and when I walk onto that campus, I know who belongs, and I can instantly tell who doesn’t belong, unless they decide to dress apart. The other thing I see is that it seems to separate the stigmas of people who have money and those who don’t, and there’s real value in that. The obvious negative side to that is you lose a bit of individualism. So it becomes a balancing act of what is more important. So I see both sides of the argument, I’m not immune to both sides. I probably wouldn’t do much to change it. I just don’t see that as a factor that leads to anywhere positive. Now, if I were convinced otherwise– and not just me; the funny thing about dress code is that it’s not the superintendent’s decision by him or herself, it’s a decision made as a collective, as a community. It’s a decision made by the board of trustees– we might look at it. I’m not someone who just comes in and says ‘we’re doing this’ unless I’m just really not happy with something. It’s going to be more of a collaborative process and more of a discussion and I always like to make decisions from points of strength, not weakness. I don’t have strong feelings about it, it’s the furthest thing from the top of my list. I’m not getting into that conversation right now. I may someday, but not right now.
Something else I think you guys would be interested in is that we are starting, on November 9th, my first Superintendent Student Advisory Council. It consists of selected students– five seniors, five juniors, five sophomores– from every high school. They will come to meet with me. One of the neat things with this group of kids, and I haven’t met them yet, I didn’t pick them so I don’t know who they are, is they will be tasked with looking at the scope of the school experience and say ‘what can we do to make it better?’ They’re going to look at some of the challenges students face day to day, and I’m going to ask them to take that on and then design a solution that they will present to the Board of Trustees and then we will try to actually enact. That will be a neat way of students getting involved. I put this together in a previous district and I want to do that here as well, so I’m looking forward to it. That’ll be a great kickoff to something pretty special, and the interesting thing is, I don’t know where it will go.”
Smith: Why do you feel the connection you have with students of poverty is important enough to drive you to a new school district?
Vroonland: “Because of my backstory. I grew up in foster care. I was a child of a 17-year-old mom who had no husband and gave me to foster care and I ended up adopted at ten. I grew up in poverty, so I know what that looks like, I know what that feels like, and I know what it means to overcome adversity in the beginnings of life. Certainly, I was advantaged at age 10 in a way that I wasn’t before ten, but regardless, you have to have a certain level of grit and a certain level of determination to overcome those first starts. And in some ways, it might have been a harder first start to be transitioning through three different families before settling in with one real family, which is this weird last name. The other piece of that, though, is I’m passionate about what education can do for young people. And I know what it will allow for you. It’s more than just a career, than just a college. Our purpose is to help you be in control of your own freedoms and help you be a self-determinant adult who knows how to pursue their happiness. It’s not to make you wealthy, it’s not to make you go to college, or anything like that. Those may be important outcomes for you, but it’s to allow you a way to be that person who is in control of their freedoms, able to make decisions, not be under the control of someone else and to be able to pursue their happiness. That is very much the American Dream, it’s not about making more than your parent, that’s been distorted. Our American dream is about pursuing the things that will make you happy and, from a financial standpoint, making enough money that you’ll be happy doing what you’re doing. Not so much making tons of money. That may be an end result, but that’s not it. Public education is the single source solution for young people achieving that. The failure of public education means the failure of the American Dream in my estimation. That is devastating to young people, especially those who don’t come with economic means. We’ve seen that system before. If you remember your history, there has always been a ‘have’ and ‘have-not’ society, but what made the ‘haves’ significantly more powerful was education. And the ‘have-nots’ didn’t have it. Well, in America, we have created a system that allows those whose start in life wasn’t perfect to become of whatever means they want to become. So why do I want to be in a place that has high poverty levels? Because I believe I can impact that to a greater degree. That may be boastful, but that’s not about me being prideful, it’s more about humbly serving in the way that I believe I am designed to serve. I just think this is a wonderful opportunity. It’s a wonderful community. You probably don’t recognize it because you’re in it, but it’s an incredibly welcoming community. And I’ve got to tell you, students have been incredibly welcoming to me and my son. So I don’t know if you know that, but it’s been pretty unique in that respect. So it’s been a great transition.”
Smith: I saw in your biography that you taught in Japan. Can you tell us more about that experience?
Vroonland: “I taught at a Japanese high school and I was also the head coach at that school. I taught literature and journalism. My wife was an Air Force psychologist, and so that took me to D.C. and Japan and Allen, and ultimately other directions. Teaching in Japan was a very unique experience, very unique from here. Students, frankly, study a lot more. After school, many of them go to what are called ‘cram schools,’ and spend two hours there studying English, especially, or math. Those are the two subjects they studied really hard because their scores get them into certain universities or even certain high schools. The school I taught at was Keimei Gakuen. Keimei was a private school and I want to say 60% of their kids were born and raised in Japan, 40% were almost entirely Japanese, and they were kiddos who had been born in Japan or born overseas but definitely lived overseas and were returning to Japan. One of the interesting things, kind of going back to our dress code conversation, one of the interesting things about these Japanese kiddos is that they were very homogeneous. Now, that may have changed since I left in 1995, but culturally, the corporate is very important, whereas in American culture, the individual is more important. And so these kiddos, when they came back from the United States or Great Britain or wherever they were coming back from, even though they looked Japanese, everybody could recognize that they weren’t Japanese. Now I don’t know how that happens because that doesn’t make any sense to me, but that is what was communicated to me. So our school was founded not only to help them learn Japanese and to help them maintain their English, but also to help them to become Japanese. It was like a cultural training center, if you well, to help the students understand what it means to be Japanese. I mean the girls there, still– you’ve probably seen Karate Kid 2, where the girl does the tea? Well, they learn that in high school. There are cultural elements in high school that are not done in the United States. They go to school a lot longer. Most high schools even have a culture festival there for a number of days where they celebrate culture. They show different parts of what is culturally Japanese. I had a great time there. Some of the kids signed a cup as a going away gift. I got a fan, I got pictures, I got a lot of things but I could only put out one. It was a great experience teaching and coaching there. I loved coaching basketball there, but there were some things different because obviously, I’m more of an American-style basketball coach and that didn’t always work well, when I yelled at officials, they just looked scared. They didn’t understand a word I was saying, so I had an interpreter on the bench and most of the time he apologized for my behavior, which wasn’t very nice. The food in Japan is unreal. It is so good. It really is good, it’s not what you think of, it’s not all raw fish. Ramen in Japan is like 20 times better than American ramen, it’s so good, I could eat it all day. And ramen shops there are like sweat shops, they’ve got steam going all the time and boiling noodles constantly, they’re usually really small, but the food is unreal. I like the Japanese people a great deal, they were really great, nice people, very friendly, you could travel anywhere you wanted. Occasionally Americans would visit, and if they had red hair color or blonde hair color, the Japanese people were just fascinated with it. My older son was born there, and he had blond hair and blue eyes. Literally, when he was a baby, we were getting paid around $150 an hour to have him pose for magazines. We took him one time out on a trip touring some Japanese sites and these high school students pulled up and mobbed us. It looked like Elvis Presley in the building. I wish I had my camera because there were about 150 girls just swarming around my wife and our older son just because he had blond hair and blue eyes. They would touch your hair on the train, so I would have to stand between them and Japanese men because obviously, it’s kind of creepy, but it’s not intended that way, they just can’t help themselves because it’s interesting. I loved being in Japan, it was a lot of fun, there were great people, and it was just a great place to teach.”
Smith: I also saw that you taught in Maryland. What was that like?
Vroonland: “I was at DeVout high school in Lanham, which is really close to the University of Maryland. That’s where I taught and coached and I was head track coach and varsity football coach there. I also taught government, Psychology, and I really liked my job there. It was very different from my first job. A lot of the kids I taught came from very tough backgrounds. They didn’t actually live in that neighborhood, they were bused to the school. They were from inside the beltway, which in the late 80s and early 90s was pretty tough sledding. But I loved the kids and frankly, I’ll say that the kids and I had a great relationship. I was only there for one year and they voted me Outstanding Teacher that one year I was there, and it was just a really neat time for me. I love D.C. If you’re a history person, it’s a great place to be. You can drive three hours either direction and see incredible things. That’s something I hope kids do when they get older. It doesn’t require as much money as you think, you can do it very cheap.”
Smith: Another thing myself and many other students have noticed is your Twitter page where you post about school events. Do you plan to expand your use of social media?
Vroonland: “Twitter is probably the extent of the social media for me. I’m trying to do more, but I don’t even know how to respond to people to be honest. People sometimes tweet at me and I don’t know what to do with that. One time I did, a young lady asked something and I responded and it went out to everybody, I think I did that wrong. That’s not what I meant to do. I just like to push out things that I think are really neat. Things that I see happening that I think are pretty cool, I like to put out.”
Robles: What is your plan for the Fine Arts program?
Vroonland: “My plan is to keep growing them. They’re really great organizations and I’m really pleased to see how much the school district has invested in them. There have been districts who, due to financial problems, have just kind of let them slide. I’ve never done that, I’ve actually grown them. We actually put a band-only practice field at Friendship when I left and they’re pretty excited about that. And I think the more you grow extra-curricular and co-curricular programs, you find ways to connect the kids to things and help grow their curiosity about things that can be. I think that’s the thing for you guys with music. It’s not just about playing music, it’s about being a part of a group of people, it’s about learning to work in a team, it’s about learning to be disciplined about things, it’s learning to commit yourself to something bigger than just yourself. You can’t just be out there for yourself or it won’t work, you have to be part of the team. Those are important assets that young people take with them into the world when they graduate and help them be successful. Those are investments that won’t go away. I don’t know where the next rendition will be, I haven’t been around long enough to tell.
One of the things we were talking about the other day is our K-6 structure in our elementary schools, and one of the things we’re talking about is implementing a 6-8 structure across our schools We have it at some of our middle school campuses, but not all. It can advantage 6th graders by getting them more quickly attached to athletics, to band, to choir, even to some CT programs. There are some real advantages to that that we are looking at right now. That will help some of the arts programs to advance and excel because all of them are doing a really good job, but we want to see them really excel and get better. We always want to get better.”