During the second week of school in her first year as superintendent of Cedar Springs Public Schools, Laura VanDuyn got a call no school official wants to get.
A 4-year-old preschooler had accidentally been left on a bus, where he sat alone in a district parking lot at the beginning of the school day until another driver discovered him.
VanDuyn responded as she thought she should, both as an educator and a mother. She called the mom and apologized, then rode the bus home with the boy at the end of the school day and apologized again in person to his mother.
“She hugged that little boy just like I would,” said VanDuyn, the mother of two small children. The bus driver was terminated the next day, and VanDuyn assigned an aide to ride that route for the next two weeks to ensure the child and his brother were comfortable riding the bus.
It was one of the more challenging situations she has faced since arriving at Cedar Springs in July. Though she came from a large special-education program in California, VanDuyn reacted with a personal touch she said befits her role in this close-knit community.
“I’m the face of the organization, and I need to be out there doing what is right for kids,” VanDuyn said. “It doesn’t matter what that is. It’s connecting with families and kids.”
Her philosophy of running the district? Simple, she says: Whatever it takes to get the job done, because “It’s all about the kids.
“It has to be authentic, passionate love and care for kids, and letting people know, ‘I’m here to take care of your child.'”
VanDuyn puts that philosophy to work with enthusiasm as she begins her tenure at Cedar Springs, succeeding the retired Ron McDermed.
She came to the district from the San Francisco Bay area, where she was executive director of a regional special-education program serving 10,000 students. Her roots are in Michigan, however, having grown up in the small town of Memphis north of Detroit. Her husband, Randy, grew up in Jenison. Moving here brought them closer to family with their children, Isadora, 6, and Vance, 3.
It was “truly a dream come true for us,” VanDuyn said after being hired in March. “To be in a place like Cedar Springs, I don’t think it gets any better than that.”
Since then she has visited all the district’s schools and has met with parents, teachers and staff as well as the city manager, police chief and Red Flannel Festival folks. She proudly sports a Rotary pin. She’s invited all district teachers to meet with her and has extended an open door to students as well.
“It’s a special place,” she said of Cedar Springs. “There is so much pride in the generational history.”
A Rocky Beginning
Her outreach to the community reflects her outgoing personality and desire to know its people. It also may serve her well following a rocky start. The Board of Education hired her on a 5-2 vote over David Cairy, the district’s assistant superintendent for administrative services. Some 200 audience members gave Cairy a standing ovation after his interview and many were “angered and saddened” by the decision, according to a report in the Cedar Springs Post newspaper.
However, while praising Cairy, board President Brook Nichols said VanDuyn’s experience, leadership skills and other attributes made her the right choice. VanDuyn addressed the issue head-on when she spoke to district staff at their opening meeting. Calling it “the elephant in the room,” she said she understood why they loved Cairy: “He’s a great guy. Within two hours of working with him, I understood why people have such respect for him.” But if they were going to dislike her, she asked they do so “for all the reasons that I’munlikable” — not because she got the job.
She had opened the meeting with a moment of silence for Scott Hazel, the well-loved high school teacher who died of cancer this summer. Brett Burns, president of the Cedar Springs Education Association, said he was impressed both with her forthright approach to the Cairy issue and her sensitivity to Hazel’s death. “She stepped into a difficult situation and I thought she handled it fantastic, withgrace and humor,” said Burns, a middle-school math teacher. Her going to Hazel’s funeral, he added, “speaks volumes about her commitment to the district.”
VanDuyn said Cairy has been gracious and helpful and that she wants the community to know her personally. “I have to be myself, get to know people and let them know who I am, that I’m not some goofball from California taking the town by storm.”
Dancing in the Rain
Upon visiting her office it quickly becomes clear VanDuyn enjoys people, especially younger ones. Her walls are covered with photos of her family as well as mementos of her extensive travels in Myanmar, Africa and elsewhere. A small sign on her bookshelf reads, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” “That’s what the job is,” she asserted. “It’s going to rain a lot. You just have to say, ‘All right, let’s dance.'”
She speaks rapidly, laughs a lot and is decidedly down-to-earth. That reflects her small-town upbringing in Memphis, where she was on the student council and captain of the track team, but also a philosophy that she is no more important than any other school employee.
“I’m not a hierarchical person,” VanDuyn insisted. “If you need me, you call me. If there’s nobody to watch kids on the playground, you call me. We’re here for the same reason.
“You’ve got to be approachable. You’ve just got to dig in and do the work.” On this afternoon she received a visit from Bryan Taylor, a senior who asked to meet with her. Editor of the yearbook and a student governance leader, he told her about the senior class’ goal for leaving a legacy just as Scott Hazel did. She told him she would like yearbook and newspaper students to help reshape the district newsletter and website. She also confided she was a mischievous student.
“I got in trouble all the time in high school,” she said with a laugh. “I was always having fun. I never did anything malicious, but I did get sent to the office a lot. I had a good time.”
Student Achievement Comes First
But her priorities for the district are dead serious. They include improving communication and follow-through among the school board and staff. Number one is improving student achievement. She expressed concern that Beach Elementary had been identified as a “focus” school on the state’s top-to-bottom list, indicating a large gap between its highest and lowest achievers.
The district needs to pull together all of its data on student performance, as well as what teachers have learned through professional development, to help students do better, she said.
“We can’t have other schools pop up as focus schools. It’s an opportunity for us to take all the great things we have and really home in on how they are impacting student achievement.”
Brett Burns, the teachers’ union president, said he likes that VanDuyn is meeting teachers and seeking input.
“It’s not easy filling the shoes of Ron McDermed,” Burns said. “I appreciate the fact she’s putting herself out there.” As for her performance as superintendent, Burns added,
“Time will tell. This year is going to be a very large learning curve for her.”
Though hard work lies ahead, VanDuyn seems ready to dance in the rain. “I love the work,” she said. “I think landing here was very special – meant to be, for me and my family.”