Dr. David Vroonland and Dr. Angel Rivera are graduates of Holdsworth’s District Leadership Program, a two-year learning journey in which central office administrators develop their personal leadership skills and practice growing and empowering others and creating change to drive excellent and equitable outcomes for students.
On March 8, Mesquite ISD Superintendent David Vroonland boarded a cruise ship in New Orleans with his wife, Joy.
A few days into the voyage, his phone was flooded with texts and emails. Panic over the coronavirus pandemic was exploding. Dr. V, as he’s called, would have to make the difficult decision to close schools while adrift in the Gulf of Mexico, then spend two weeks in quarantine upon arriving home.
Mesquite ISD had no devices in kids’ hands, no online lessons ready, and were not prepared to distribute food.
Our teachers, our staff – their lives have truly been a blessing for the people in our community.
Fortunately, the district had been practicing the art of distributive leadership since Dr. V’s arrival in 2015. He has worked to give staff, faculty and even students a greater sense of ownership over their work without feeling micromanaged from above, and the freedom to make their own decisions.
While he was marooned on a boat, faculty and staff didn’t wait to be told what to do. From custodians to teachers, principals to district leaders, folks took the wheel and began to collectively steer the ship.
When Dr. V emerged from quarantine, Mesquite ISD had managed to stand up remote instruction and meal distribution, hand out 12,000 devices and secure 2,000 internet hotspots.
“It was remarkable,” he said. “I don’t use that word often because it can be trite and loses its meaning. But this was remarkable. I am not sure there are many businesses who could have done what we did.”
Bringing the joy back
Dr. V was born into poverty and bounced from one foster family to the next throughout most of his boyhood. School was the one constant, a safe place where people cared about him seemed to take joy in their work.
A passion for helping kids like himself is what drove him to Mesquite ISD, an urban district where three-quarters of students are economically disadvantaged.
Over the course of his career, he has watched the trend toward standardization. In his eyes, trying to fit every child into the same standard mold has drained joy out of classrooms, for both teachers and students.
He’s made it his mission to bring the joy back.
In 2016, he introduced a movement from “compliance to ownership” for Mesquite ISD. Which is to say, empowering people at all levels to be leaders in their area of expertise – to troubleshoot, respond to needs as they see them and make on-the-ground decisions without having to go through layers of red tape.
Ideally, that sense of ownership should extend to the students. After all, they are the ones who benefit from their own education.
When the opportunity to join Holdsworth’s 5-year partnership came along, Dr. V and Dr. Angel Rivera, the district’s assistant superintendent for innovation and leadership, jumped at the chance to push deeper into their focus on leadership.
After four years of steady movement from “compliance to ownership,” the pandemic revealed the fruits of their labor. Faculty and staff owned the moment and came together as a powerful team to take care of their Mesquite family.
In normal times, we try to think creatively inside the box because the box is real. Guess what just happened? The box blew up.
At Moss Elementary, Principal Michael Pierotti felt grateful for all the ways central office was providing support. But he was the one on the ground getting it done. The time he had spent growing his own team paid off. Each member served as a point person for a grade level and was able to make decisions and respond to needs without going through Michael.
“When it all goes through one person, it bottlenecks,” he said. “We were able to get information out quickly, make fast decisions and get feedback from students, teachers and parents quickly as well.”
This is exactly what Dr. V likes to hear.
“I always say, ‘I hope your life is blessed, but more importantly, I hope your life is a blessing to others,’” “Our teachers, our staff – their lives have truly been a blessing for the people in our community.”
Building a new box
But of course, the crisis isn’t over.
“In normal times, we try to think creatively inside the box because the box is real,” Dr. V said. “But guess what just happened? The box blew up. How do we redesign the system in a way that advantages our kids?”
In this moment, Dr. V said, the job of a good leader is to sketch the outline of a new box, then help people build the skills and tools they need to operate within it.
“We need to get there quickly, which requires centralization so that people are not fumbling and stumbling,” he said. “Once people feel knowledgeable and confident, we can pull back and allow them to be more creative and nimble.”
Whatever happens with COVID-19, Mesquite ISD will go into next year with a far more robust home learning environment in terms of teaching, learning, engagement and assessment: “It can’t just be what we are doing now.”
Every teacher will stand up an online platform to use during the year – even if they are not at home – so that everyone can become more practiced in case of a second wave. It also means working on a fully virtual school to ensure continuity if there’s another closure.
The leadership team has done the scenario planning and designing – now they have to prepare faculty and staff to navigate an uncertain future.
Angel is leading work on a series of training modules to help educators get up to speed quickly. How do you set up an online platform? How does planning look different? How do you deliver instruction and show evidence of learning? How do you bring parents into the learning space and help them be an asset to you?
“There is no class at any university I can think of that teaches you how to do this effectively,” Angel said.
The next frontier
While Dr. V and Angel would both like to see kids back in schools as soon as possible, the shift to online learning has pushed thinking in some important areas.
In an online environment, kids can move at their own pace based upon mastery of material, and learning can be tailored to their passions and aptitudes; in the physical classroom, everyone learns the same thing at the same time.
Individualizing education – as well as boosting leadership and ownership at all levels – is part of Dr. V’s master plan to bring more joy back to the classroom.
The next frontier is figuring out how to do that amid an ongoing pandemic, whether school is in-person or online.
“We have said forever that we want to maximize potential, but we have never done it. We’re still stuck in a bureaucratic model stood up in the 1890s,” Dr. V said. “We have to stop pretending kids are all the same and start tapping into their passions and aptitudes.”
Dr. V believes the deep investments Mesquite made in leadership prior to COVID-19 will continue to pay off and help them reach their vision. The joy will come back.
“When I look into people’s eyes and start talking about the future, I don’t see people being scared,” Dr. V said. “I see them saying, “What are we going to do and how? We’re ready to help.’”