A HISTORY OF THE OAK PARK AND RIVER FOREST HIGH SCHOOL
For most of its history the Oak Park and River Forest High School has used the crest (shown above) as its official symbol. The school motto appears in the Greek language: “those things that are best.” As a statement of aspirations and intentions, the motto seems eminently appropriate to the record of this high school community. The story of the school reveals significant continuity in its operation and readily observable consistency in the values it has existed to serve.
Beginning in 1873, high school students from Oak Park attended classes in space provided in Central School, an elementary school that stood at Lake Street and Forest Avenue. Three graduates received diplomas at the first commencement in 1877. With a growing population, the first high school only building was constructed in 1892 on the southwest corner of Lake Street and East Avenue. The new high school building included some of the first science labs provided in secondary schools in America. (In 1917 the building was purchased by the Archdiocese of Chicago and operated by Dominican Sisters as a home for motherless boys. It was called Bishop Quarter in honor of the first Bishop of Chicago. In 1941 it became Bishop Quarter Military Academy and existed until 1968. The Village of Oak Park razed the building in 1969). Enrollment in the new school grew steadily and received a special boost in 1899 when the high school was separated from the Oak Park Elementary District and a consolidated high school district was formed with River Forest. Thus was established the Oak Park and River Forest Township High School.
In 1905, Mr. Hanna, the principal, began the planning for a new and larger high school building. Land was purchased between East Ave and Scoville Ave. on Ontario Street. The new building (1907) was to accommodate 800 students. Innovations in the new school included a school library and chemistry labs. When the North Wing was completed in 1913 the building stretched from Ontario Street to Erie Street. Construction boomed in the 20’s with the completion of the west side of the building quadrangle. Additional construction included a field house (1927) the first in the nation for a high school and the most complete facilities (1928) for girls’ physical education. Subsequent additions were built in 1953 and 1957. The field house floor was remolded from wood to concrete in 1979.
During the 1940’s, World War II touched the school in many ways. Several thousand students left to join the armed forces during the four years of the war and more than 100 of these alumni died in combat. The Consolidated High School District 200, Cook County, Illinois was established by an order of the County Superintendent of Cook County, Illinois on June 21, 1949. The District is composed of the former Oak Park Township High School District 200 and the River Forest Community High School District 223 that had been created in 1946 upon petition from residents of the Village of River Forest who wanted to establish a new high school in River Forest. Students who were River Forest residents continued to attend the high school from 1946-1949 as tuition students.
In 1958-59 the north wing was rebuilt providing a new library, art, industrial arts and cafeteria facilities. In 1960 and 1962 laboratories, classrooms, a language lab, counseling offices, health and attendance suites were constructed in what originally were interior light wells.
In the late 1960’s the school undertook its most ambitious construction program. The building was extended south across Ontario Street to connect the academic building with the physical education facilities. The new addition included a 1700 seat auditorium and a smaller Little Theatre as well as two new cafeterias, 54 classrooms, large group instruction rooms and expanded music rehearsal facilities.
The civil rights movement that came of age in the 1960’s would profoundly affect the life of the high school in the decades to follow. The debates in the community about fair housing, equal rights and diversity would have great impact upon the high school. In addition, with the passage of the Title IX amendment, the expansion of opportunities for women in athletic competition dominated the 70’s. OPRFHS collected state championships in the newly organized state competitions in Girls’ Tennis, Volleyball and Track.
In 1974, the Board of Education initiated plans to acquire the south field, the area immediately south of the field house and north of Lake Street. By the spring of 1976 the 1.2 acres had been purchased. The existing structures were demolished and the space developed for girls’ physical education and athletics. In addition major energy conservation initiatives were completed with the replacement of all the windows in the ‘old building” and an upgrading of the heating and air conditioning systems.
The growth of Special Education programs was a major focus of the 1980’s. Numerous programs were established to help students with special needs to succeed. By the end of the decade every special population program would be a part of the high school community. This time also saw the continued expansion of opportunities for women in athletics. New activities such as the MORP, SADD Club, the Human Relations and the Tradition of Excellence Awards were begun at this time. The close of the decade would bring concerns about the financial future of the high school, as the community grew increasingly concerned about rising taxes.
The 1990’s saw a lessening of the financial crisis that began in the late 1980’s with the adoption of a long-term financial plan in 1995. However, a continuing issue for the school was the concern that African American students were not achieving at rates comparable to the majority of the student body. This would result in the adoption of the African American Achievement Initiative in 1998 by the Board of Education. The last half of the decade also saw a major initiative to integrate new technologies into classroom instruction. In 1996 the entire building was wired for a computer network and a computer was added to every employee’s workspace. The dawn of the new century saw the first expansion of the school’s grounds in fifty (50) years. The high school purchased the land bounded by Lake Street, East Avenue, Scoville Avenue, and the “EL” tracks for new athletic fields. At the same time a major renovation of the stadium was completed including the installation of synthetic turf in the stadium and for the new Lake Street fields. In addition, the high school’s Board of Education and Administration worked cooperatively with the Village of Oak Park to construct a community parking facility on the South Field that would serve the needs of the high school staff during the day, and the needs of the community in the evening. On the weekends, the parking facility would meet the needs of the school, community and the Farmer’s Market.
While things have changed since 1873 and the sights and sounds are different each year, the change at the high school is constant. The school’s primary goal remains the same, to enrich the life of our students so that they may fulfill the mission of the school “to reach their full human potential”. Now well into its second century, Oak Park and River Forest High School has maintained its focus, mindful of its past, while embracing its future, working to meet the needs of students who will live most of their lives in the twenty- first century.