By Rebecca J. Barnabi
For Augusta Free Press
WAYNESBORO — Dr. Jeff Cassell is the 2021 recipient of the Waynesboro Rotary Club’s Rotarian Service Award.
As superintendent of Waynesboro Schools, he was also named by the Virginia Association of School Superintendents for Superintendent of the Year for 2021 along with all of Virginia’s 133 school superintendents.
“I think it’s a great honor for all of us,” Cassell said. “It’s much like the Rotary Club recognized all of our teachers and support staff and faculty. It has been a very challenging year for superintendents and school boards. So, I appreciate the acknowledgement by VASS of that.”
But the Rotary Club award means more to him because it is local, and he is a member of the club.
“That’s quite an honor,” Cassell said of the Rotary Club award.
Cassell said he knows the outstanding people the award has recognized in the past, and now he is among that group of community members.
“It’s really humbling to be a part of that group,” he said.
After a career spent as a high school teacher, then middle school teacher, followed by an elementary school principal in Smyth County, Cassell became Director of Finance & Operations, and then Assistant Superintendent for Administration.
“And I just wanted to be superintendent somewhere,” Cassell said. “I thought it was a good way to end my career. I guess I just always moved up to the next level [or challenge].”
He knew he could handle the position of superintendent 10 years ago after the superintendent of Smyth County Schools took three months off because his young son was battling cancer, and Cassell stepped up to serve as temporary superintendent.
“I just kind of figured out how you do this,” Cassell said. “Kind of made me want to.”
Cassell came to Waynesboro Schools eight years ago for the challenges that a small school system presents.
“I like the area,” Cassell said. “I like the Shenandoah Valley, and I was in a much larger rural school system [in Smyth] and I liked the smaller city system. I thought it was a different set of challenges, and it has been. But it’s been good.”
He grew up in Bland County, Virginia, and graduated Emory and Henry College. He earned his master’s degree from Virginia Tech and a doctorate from East Tennessee State.
Cassell and his wife, Kathy, a retired teacher, live in Waynesboro. Daughter, Emily, just finished her first year of teaching in Montgomery County.
“There are other small school divisions. I really think there’s such a collaborative and cooperative effort in Waynesboro among the faculty, the staff, the administrators, the teachers,” Cassell said of what sets Waynesboro Schools apart from other small school systems in Virginia.
He said he is most proud in the last eight years that not only have all of Waynesboro’s schools earned accreditation but student performance has improved.
He is also proud of capital improvements, especially completing phase 1 of renovations at Waynesboro High while superintendent of the school system.
“That’s been a big boost, I think, for our high school, for our students and faculty there,” Cassell said.
As for most school systems in Virginia, the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge for Waynesboro Schools. However, Cassell said, each day and each week staff and teachers felt they made progress toward reaching goals to stay ahead of the challenge.
The school system began by providing meals early on for students and their families to pick up several days a week that would get them through the week.
Then, the school system took on virtual instruction, which required ensuring all families had Internet access and all students had Chrome books.
“So, the fact our families were able to have Internet connection we thought was a huge accomplishment. We know that wasn’t the case in many places,” Cassell said.
He said that Internet access for all families provided additional benefits such as access to applying for unemployment.
Virtual instruction was successful with engaging students while also giving them an education, and in October 2020, most students returned to in-person instruction.
“It was kind of small steps, but we felt like we were always progressing and improving,” Cassell said of rising to challenges the pandemic presented within the school system.
By January 2021, all students who wanted to attend in-person instruction were able to do so.
“We felt like we were meeting the needs of our students and families as best that we could during the pandemic,” Cassell said. “I was really proud of our school system’s response to the community.”
For August 2021, Cassell said the school system is “expecting most of our students to be back in person.”
He said he is proud of the community support the school system received during the pandemic.
School administration, staff and teachers learned how to be flexible and gained confidence that they can rise to any challenge because they were able to handle a global pandemic.
If he could do anything different as Waynesboro Schools’ leader during a pandemic, Cassell said the school system could always improve communication with students, families and the community.
“Things were just changing so quickly especially early in the [2020-2021 academic] year,” he said.
Some families did not receive communication or did not understand what was communicated by the school system.
“Improving our communication through the pandemic is the thing I would have liked to have done.”