In 1996-97 we went to the high school board and asked them to keep students in the building at lunch time. We proposed that all freshmen and sophomore students would have a "closed" campus, and that juniors and seniors would earn the privilege of leaving the building by (1) having no serious disciplinary problems, (2) a GPA of C or better, (3) parental permission , and (4) a limited number of absences after lunch period. We based our proposal on extensive research and questionnaires with administrators at comparable high schools including Evanston, New Trier, Highland Park, York, Hinsdale Central and Lyons Township. We also took a national look at the issue.
What we discovered was that most high schools did not have a totally open campus. The reasons for closing were: safety, less neighborhood disturbances, opportunity to build school spirit, a more serious academic atmosphere, less opportunity for gang solicitation, and a decrease in tardiness and absences.
The question of anger from students about a change of policy was discussed with other schools. They all had similar answers: There is a short period of resentment from some students, but that decreases and within one school generation; it is taken for granted that the campus will be closed for most students. When I attended Oak Park and River Forest High School in the mid-1950s, virtually no students left the building. We either had a bag lunch or purchased lunch in the cafeteria and viewed lunchtime as a great social experience. We had no drugs, no gangs and no opportunity to disappear after lunch. We were, first and foremost, students. An additional benefit was not eating "junk food" and very little obesity.
We gained support from the police chief and department, local newspapers, parent groups and some of the board members, who really appreciated the data we presented. Now, with the new focus on parent groups seeking answers to substance abuse problems in middle schools and high school, parents are asking about closing the campus. Most do not know about our movement in the '90s, which resulted in closing the campus for freshmen only. Our research could be easily updated — in fact, our movement was led by only three women from Oak Park and River Forest: Debra Hadelman, Chatka Ruggiero and me. We visited schools that were amazed that Oak Park had not, at least partially, closed its campus.
Let's keep students secure within the building and, at the same time, think of new recreational opportunities within the building, such as table tennis, mini art programs, brief student entertainment opening new interests and other creative programs designed by the students. It might not seem like a popular change to make, but we, as adults in the community, owe it to our students to revisit this important issue.
Roberta Raymond, an Oak Park resident since 1938, is a 1955 graduate of OPRF and president of the high school's alumni association.