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District Dialogue

From rags to riches, new Texas chief brings transformation

Mesquite ISD superintendent focuses on teachers and reading to students in need
Mesquite ISD Superintendent David Vroonland says he has worked to give teachers more autonomy.
Mesquite ISD Superintendent David Vroonland says he has worked to give teachers more autonomy.

At age 14, David Vroonland says he knew he would serve young people.

An atypical childhood brought him to that point. His mother, who was in foster care, was about 16 when she gave birth in Iowa. He was raised away from her in foster care in poverty, but in a loving family. And then at age 10, an upper-middle class family from Cedar Rapids adopted him. His father was a mechanical engineer and his mother was a dietician.

“It was a very significant change in lifestyle and expectations and what was considered normal,” he recalls. “I still went to public school, but there was a different cultural expectation at the Vroonland house and the students around me. Everyone was expected to go to college.”

Consequently, he would serve people who were born into less fortunate circumstances. “I felt fortunate,” he recalls. “And public education is the reason I could succeed, so I chose to be an educator to help young people see they had a pathway of success with hard work and determination.”

In 1986, he started his career as a history teacher and coach in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD. He even spent 2 1/2 years as a coach and teacher in Japan.

In 1995, Vroonland returned to Texas to teach and coach in Wichita Falls ISD, and eventually took on administrative positions in a few Texas districts. Then in 2009, Vroonland, who had since received his doctoral degree, became superintendent of Frenship ISD, a suburban district, and planned to retire within five years.

But a representative of the superintendent search firm for Mesquite, which is east of Dallas, approached Vroonland last spring to apply for the chief position. She knew he had always wanted to lead an urban district. His wife and youngest son, still in high school, encouraged him to apply.

Vroonland says he believes his life story, combined with his plans around teacher empowerment and innovation, resonated with the school board. “I was the first hire outside the district since the 1950s,” he says. “It was both humbling and significant.”

Vroonland started the job in July 2015. He spoke with Managing Editor Angela Pascopella about his new job.

You’ve made some substantial strides in just seven months. Can you share those?

It’s a continuing education for me. I came from a district of about 9,000 students and Mesquite has nearly 41,000 students.

One of the things I didn’t want to do is change the culture of the system. It’s a wonderful place. There is great history here in Mesquite, really good people throughout the system, and in the community. And my job as a leader is to stretch their thinking and see where that leads.

The first thing I wanted to do is establish strong relationships with folks internally and externally. Then I needed to identify areas where there were conflicts, where the behavior was not matching the philosophy of the district, and which creates problems for the people doing the work they need to do to make change.

Mesquite ISD

  • Superintendent David Vroonland
  • Students: 40,771
  • Schools: 47
  • Staff and faculty: 6,671
  • Per child expenditure: $8,240
  • Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 75%
  • Yearly budget: $476 million

So we’re identifying conflicts in the system and creating opportunities for people to be more autonomous. If you truly want students to be successful you have to work hard to remove the bureaucracy and red tape, and have teachers really be autonomous to meet the students’ needs. And to do that you have to build capacity.

You’re developing a Master Teachers Certification. How will it work?

Teachers who meet this level will take 18 hours of masters-level credit in classes, but tightly defined around what our district values most in developing teacher capacity. These courses will be taught by our teachers to our teachers in collaboration with a local university.

Upon completion, teachers will need to meet a standard established by a local evaluation instrument that focuses on implementing the learning that occurred. If they do, they will reach level 1 certificate. We believe about 75 percent of our teachers will meet this requirement.

Level 2 requires the teacher to continue to expand learning by completing a master’s degree. They will add value to their school through such things as mentoring, staff development, leadership of PLC teams. If they do this and continue to meet the requirements of level 1, they will be a level 2 MTC and get an increased stipend. We believe about 25% of teachers will move to this level.

Finally, if a teacher meets the level 1 and 2 requirements and then gets a doctorate or a national teacher certificate, and acts in a leadership role for two years, they will move to a level 3 MTC.

What other changes?

I want to have every student in third grade reading on their level. We’re not buying a product. If a product worked, it would have already been done.

Teachers of pre-K to grade 2 will develop their own plan and a community-made board will create an outreach plan that will revolve around talking to kids, as soon as they are born, and to play games with them.

Because we know that the children who are at a significant disadvantage in school are not exposed to enough vocabulary when they are growing up in their home. In urban districts, you have to crack this nut. And at this district, 75 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

We are meeting with private preschools and home daycare to build a community effort to increase reading in the home and talking with children.

Read. Play. Talk. That’s the focus. Getting parents to engage with their children every day. And we will get them to read on their grade level by the time they finish third grade. If we accomplish that, our students should perform at or better than their peers who are not in poverty.

We hired a company to facilitate the process and bring in coaches once the design was created. We paid them a half million dollars over 2 1/2 years. And I’m excited that some key players are getting involved, such as the state commissioner of education. He’s keenly aware of the effort and has offered me advice on some things we can do.

In Mesquite, we spend $11 million annually trying to recover students who have failed their state test in the third grade. That’s too much money trying to recover students instead of focusing on the front end, and starting students on the right pathway in the first place.

Where did you get such ideas?

I just never liked to think like everyone else—I was the push-against-the-norm kind of guy. And that doesn’t mean the norm is wrong. But if you’re not pushing against it and are still failing, you are guaranteed to keep repeating it. And there is a lot of truth to it.

And we keep doing it. When you do the same thing and just try to be more efficient to have more students perform better, is being more efficient really going to solve the problem? I don’t necessarily believe I have all the answers but I like to ask questions, “Do we have a better way of doing it?”

That’s my frustration with many systems out there. Take the choice movement in schools. Much evidence shows it doesn’t really work. I don’t have a problem with student or parent choice. My question is, “Is it going to really work?”

What about the testing movement?

We’ve been testing for 20 years, and we haven’t created more engineers or more scientists. Do we need to rethink this? As a leader, my job is to strengthen people, to get them to look at their effectiveness, and if my current model is not working, do I need to do something different?

That’s why the model for the pre-K to grade 2 system will work. If teachers are designing the process and the plan, I am confident they will do it exceptionally well because they own it. That plan might have moments of failure and we will fix it.

If we just try to get “buy-in”—by the way, my least favorite word—and tell teachers they have to do this, they will eventually point fingers if it fails and say, “Fix it,” or “I told you it wouldn’t work.”

And you are helping students?

I believe in the Jeffersonian view of education. President Jefferson spoke to the value of public education in a letter he wrote in 1810, in part stating that children should have access to a central school in their area.

I believe education is the most noble profession in that we help to develop young people into self-determinant adults.

Today our purpose is often defined as preparing children to be college and career ready.

While these are important outcomes of an education, ultimately we have to provide an education, especially in a democracy, that empowers people to think for themselves and to restrict the power of those who would choose to limit our freedoms for their personal gain.