I am a member of the IMAGINE OPRF Work Group, attended OPRF High School and graduated in 1997. Freshman year was among the most terrifying experiences of my life. OPRF was overwhelming until I found a home, my niche, in the instrumental music department. My life, my friends and my weekends stemmed from that room.
OPRF was my home for four years because Room 100 was my home for four years. My success and confidence developed in that room, expanded to success in the broader school and beyond. The struggle to find a niche in high school is almost universal. The students who find a home, thrive. The students who don’t, struggle.
During the IMAGINE process I discovered that far too many students of color and students without means do not ever find their home at OPRF. As a volunteer, I heard passionate stories from students and parents about programs (like instrumental music) that engaged and connected students to the school. I heard about art studios and weight rooms filled with students from early morning through study halls and free periods and until faculty members guiltily asked students to leave in the evening. I heard about the theater program, marching band, and track team that each support the growth of hundreds of students.
I also heard heart-wrenching stories from students about hiding in bathrooms during lunch time because they were afraid of the lunch room. I heard about compassionate teachers who hosted lunchtime retreats in their classrooms for students. I heard about students doing homework in stairwells because they didn’t want to go home. I heard about crowds of minority students pushed out of the building after school. I heard from disenfranchised students who did not feel welcome in the building, don’t feel like there are spaces created for them, and can’t find a home at OPRF.
The IMAGINE group discussed these findings and puzzled over how to address this issue. Then the IMAGINE team toured several peer high schools and the solutions started to become evident. Schools we visited incorporated commons areas for students. Deerfield connected their cafeteria and renovated library, creating a welcoming student gathering space. Lake Forest did the same, connecting the library, athletics corridor and extra-curricular spaces. These created hubs for student activities during the day and after hours in areas that could be securely isolated from the rest of the school.
IMAGINE is proposing an OPRF commons, anchored by a student resource center providing access to library, media, and tutoring resources. Student services like counselors, social workers, and nurses would be located along the commons for student access during lunch and outside of school hours. The commons would include quiet, comfortable seating areas where students could linger, study, and gather. The commons would be a transformative space for OPRF that would create places for students to feel welcome in the building, to find their home.
Facilities matter, and I invite you to our Oct. 3 community meeting to learn about the commons and other parts of our master plan for OPRF.
Jacob Worley-Hood is an Oak Park resident and member of IMAGINE OPRF.