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‘I didn’t give myself any other option’

Night school, daytime job enabled him to graduate


When Don Zandbergen was suspended from high school for smoking, in the second semester of his junior year, he knew he could just not go back. He already had a full-time job framing houses, and had just moved in with his mother in Rockford. It would cost a lot in time and gas money to finish in the district he had attended since kindergarten, about 25 miles away.

The thought of not getting a high school diploma lasted about a second. He and his mother looked into what was available closer to where he now lived.

“In this day and age, most jobs want you to have at least a high school diploma,” Don said. “I knew if I didn’t have it, it would only hinder me, long-term, not help me in any way.”

He enrolled in night school at the district’s East Campus, which meant he wouldn’t have to quit his job while making up a semester’s worth of school and graduating on schedule. Though it meant showing up for school, often still in work clothes after a full day’s manual labor, he was undaunted.

“I’ve always had people around me who work really hard,” Don said. “By the time I got here, I knew I was going to graduate. I didn’t give myself any other option. I just put my head down and got to work.”

Don has been working since he tagged along years ago with his dad, who installs irrigation systems. Don works in building maintenance now and hopes to someday own his own residential construction business.

“It’s kind of cool to be able to say, ‘Yeah, I built that house,’ and watch it slowly get bigger and bigger.”

Don Zandbergen, right, and GRCC M-TEC classmate Jeron Jackson install rails on a scaffolding as part of the Northview district’s Future Focused Fridays program

Ready for Workforce

He graduates this year having also earned a handful of construction and safety certifications through his participation in the district’s Future Focused Fridays launched just this year. The program allows seniors to work with local businesses each Friday, helping to prepare them for the workforce before graduating.

‘I just put my head down and got to work.’ — East Campus graduate Don Zandbergen

“Don has demonstrated his natural abilities with the use of hand and power tools, the ability to see what needs to happen several steps in advance, as well as the ability to be coached and to coach others,” said East Campus teacher Jack “Rusty” Retherford.

“Don frequently surprises me with his age, as he presents himself to be older mentally than he really is. He is kind, considerate and dependable, and constantly steps up and volunteers to lead the class in some new skill they are being taught.

“Don also has perfect attendance for the year,” Retherford added. “I know if I was an employer, I would not hesitate to hire him.”

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SNN article: Hands-on career exploration via  Future Focused Fridays

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills and Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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