There’s an obvious divide separating black and white students at Oak Park and River Forest High School in the critical areas of standardized testing, social and emotional well-being, academic behaviors and civic responsibility. That’s the observation of Jennifer Cassell, an attorney and former community journalist who is running for a seat on the D200 school board in April because she believes her life can be informative in helping to eliminate that divide.
These issues, she said, have “plagued the district for some time.”
Cassell joins seven other candidates in a race for three open D200 board seats. Sharon Patchak-Layman is the only incumbent board member who has filed for reelection. Ralph Lee and John Phelan, whose terms are set to expire, will not seek reelection.
“I know [the achievement gap] has been addressed in the [district’s] strategic plan, which is a living document that can be tweaked along the way,” she said. “But some of the progress isn’t being made like it should be. Unfortunately, race is a big predictor in student achievement. I witnessed it firsthand.”
Cassell grew up west of the Des Plaines River in the communities of Maywood and Broadview. She graduated from Proviso East before attending the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where she majored in English. After college, she interned with the Chicago Sun-Times and worked as a reporter at The Hinsdale Doings, covering city council meetings and the occasional school board meeting.
After several years as a journalist, she decided to change course and enrolled in DePaul University’s College of Law. After law school, she clerked under Judge Ann Claire Williams of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals before landing her current position as an attorney with a federal government department that she requested go unnamed.
“I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college,” Cassell said. “I was definitely the first to become an attorney.”
If the sense of playing catch up was felt generationally, it was also felt personally, Cassell noted, particularly through her daughter Alexis, a sophomore at OPRF.
Now an honors student, Cassell said her daughter struggled for some time trying to adjust to the pace of learning first at D97 schools and then at OPRF. Skills that may come naturally to students who have been in great learning environments their whole lives take time to develop in those who didn’t grow up in those environments, she said.
“Even though the Catholic school my daughter attended [before transferring into D97] had a pretty good reputation, it wasn’t at the level of schools here in Oak Park,” Cassell said. “I’ve seen firsthand how not growing up and going to [great schools] early on can affect students and unfortunately it’s affecting black and Hispanic students in our community [at higher rates].”
While Cassell commended the D200 board for confronting the achievement gap head-on, she said that there’s something missing when it comes to implementing programs and policies that can actually begin moving the needle on the problem.
“The board has laid the groundwork and seem to understand the issues,” she said. “They’ve done the study and looked at the data, but there’s something missing. The stumbling block is still there and that’s what we need to address.”
Cassell, who is making her first foray into seeking election, mentioned that some current school policies may actually be aggravating the gap, instead of helping to close it.
“I know it was a struggle to get [my daughter] placed in honors courses, so I can relate to parents who want that for their children, but may not be able to achieve it, because of roadblocks or because their students have fallen behind and can’t catch up.
“We need to work holistically with the community and parents to help kids reach their full potential,” she said. “We also need to look at the disciplinary records of students, because students of color are being disproportionately disciplined and suspended. That’s affecting their abilities to take part in the classroom.”
The practicing attorney who has resided in Oak Park for six years said that, even though she’s a political novice, her heart has always been in public service — particularly the kind geared toward helping those who may be facing economic disadvantages.
“I volunteer a lot mentoring law students both through my employer, the Just the Beginning Foundation and the Common Roots Initiative.”
The Common Roots Initiative is a collective of former Proviso East High School students who give out scholarships to graduating seniors at the school, in addition to giving out money to teachers for classroom materials.
It’s an extension of a mandate Cassell, who insists that she would be an independent vote (“I’m not wedded to any political strongholds”), believes would apply to her tenure on the school board.
“My overall desire is to serve my community,” she said. “I think I have the skill set and perspective that would serve the board and school community well. OPRF has an excellent academic reputation, but there are some things we need to be thinking about to maintain that excellence for all students.”