The school board at Oak Park and River Forest High School is back to full strength. At a special meeting July 18 the board voted 6-0 to appoint Oak Park resident Audrey Williams-Lee to the school board to replace Kebreab Henry who resigned from the school board in May because he moved out of the district.
Williams-Lee, who will serve the rest of Henry’s term which runs until 2025, was picked from a field of 13 candidates who applied to fill the vacancy. Six semifinalists were invited to appear before the board last month and Williams-Lee and two other finalists, lawyer Patience Clark-Keys, and project manager Leslie Stephenshaw had second interviews with the school board this month in closed session.
“We had three fabulous finalists,” said school board president Tom Cofsky.
After interviewing the third finalist, who was Williams-Lee, on July 18 the board deliberated for about 45 minutes in closed session before returning to open session to unanimously approve the appointment of Williams-Lee.
“We kind of came to consensus,” Cofsky said.
Cofsky said Williams-Lee stood out for a few reasons.
“She is well versed in the matters going on in the district,” said Cofsky said. “She’s board ready. She has a complimentary background to the rest of the board with her personal expertise in areas and she’s committed to the students of the district.”
Williams-Lee extensive background in human resources stood out. She currently works as the Chief People Officer at Lurie Children’s Hospital and has spent her entire professional career working in human resources, mostly in the corporate world.
Williams-Lee graduated from Northwestern University with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. She earned a master’s degree in organizational behavior from Benedictine University. She began her career in HR working for Unilever and worked for McDonalds for 12 years. She has been at Lurie for two years and has also worked in HR for Hyatt Hotels, W.W. Granger and Opportunity International.
“I’ve worked in all aspects of human resources,” Williams-Lee said in her June appearance before the school board.
Williams-Lee was sworn in remotely as none of the finalists were present when the board made its choice.
Williams-Lee becomes the only Black member of the school board which was left without a Black member when Henry resigned. She will be one of two women on the school board. Williams-Lee has lived in Oak Park for 23 years. She is the mother of two sons, one of whom has graduated from OPRF and another who is a current OPRF student.
In her first appearance before the school board in June Williams-Lee said that one of her sons had an IEP and another was an honors student. That has, she said, given her broad perspective about the school and how it deals with different kinds of students.
“I want our high school to be very vibrant; I want it to be radically inclusive, I want it to be excellent,” Williams-Lee said.
In that same appearance Williams-Lee said that her top priority would be mental health. She noted that national statistics show that female students, LGBTQ+ students and Black students were having higher rates of mental health issues.
She also said she had a strong commitment to equity, which she defined as providing students what they need to be successful.
“I think the new freshmen curriculum is something that is much needed,” Williams-Lee said.
In June Williams-Lee told the school board she thought the school needed to do a better job of getting information out to parents about the new honors for all freshman curriculum and get more buy in from parents for its equity efforts.
“Bringing others along isn’t always about facts and numbers,” Williams-Lee said. “In my experience, it’s a lot about emotion, it’s a lot about people feeling heard and feeling that their voices are understood and sometimes you can’t even get through to people with the facts until they feel that you connect with them from an emotional perspective.”
Williams-Lee told the board that two basic values for her are respect and transparency.
“Respect means you’re always listening to people, you’re considering other points of view,” Williams-Lee said. “You may not always agree, but you come to the conclusion. And transparency means that you’re very open and honest about how and why.”
After being sworn in, Williams-Lee was asked whether there was anything she wanted to say.
“I am very excited to join the board and to help move forward all the important work,” Williams-Lee said.