Since 1877, Oak Park and River Forest High School seniors have, with a few exceptions, worn dresses and suits to commencement, which has historically been held on the high school’s campus.

During this year’s commencement, however, the venerable suits and skirts will likely give way to navy blue caps and gowns, and the ceremony itself moved to the UIC Pavilion in Chicago.

During a committee of the whole meeting on Oct. 16, administration officials recommended that District 200 school board members vote to approve the attire and venue changes. The board is scheduled to vote on the change of venue during an Oct. 25 regular meeting. A vote on the attire change could happen sometime in November. 

Technically, no board vote is needed in order to go ahead with the changes, some school board members pointed out. But these aren’t just any graduation-related modifications. 

Many community members may well see this year’s commencement as a sudden and complete upending of a revered, more than a century-old tradition, district officials conceded. 

“Part of the reason we’re bringing this to the board is because there’s going to be backlash,” said Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams. “It’s [still] going to be on us, [but] if the board doesn’t support this, this goes nowhere.” 

Pruitt-Adams and Nathaniel Rouse, OPRF’s principal, said that the switch to caps and gowns would make commencement more affordable for some families who may struggle to buy formal attire. 

Rouse presented a price quote from the merchandise and apparel company Jostens that put the cost of a navy blue cap and gown with navy and orange tassel at $27. 

The switch, they added, would also go a substantial way toward addressing the concerns of some students who don’t conform to the conventional male/female gender binary. 

Since at least 2016, attitudes about graduation attire among OPRF students have gradually shifted away from the tradition of girls wearing white dresses and boys wearing dark suits.

For the last two years, the high school’s graduating seniors have voted on modified graduation attire. Last year, students wore either a black or white outfit of their choosing. Caps and gowns, despite being an option on the ballot, has never garnered a majority vote. 

“I really thought the changes made over the last few years were student-driven and satisfied most of the issues with students who felt marginalized,” said board member Fred Arkin, an OPRF alumnus who said that he was “struggling” with both of the proposed changes to the commencement ceremony.

Rouse indicated that the board and the administration must take steps to protect the wellbeing of a minority of vulnerable students if the majority of the student body cannot. 

“As we continue to vote on traditional attire versus caps and gowns, we know the establishment and status quo will always have that vote,” he said, referencing the traditional attire option.

“When I thought that we had solved the problem when we shifted to allowing students to wear white or black, some students reminded me that students who struggle with identity still have to choose,” Rouse said. “They’re still choosing whether to dress as male or female.” 

Rouse said that he understands that “some students feel I have taken away their voice,” adding that he has agreed to go before Student Council and other groups “to talk about this” and is encouraging students to have conversations through November. 

“For those marginalized students,” Rouse said, “their voice is never heard.” 

Pruitt-Adams recalled one graduation during which “a young man was standing outside.” He was afraid to go into the commencement ceremony because “he didn’t have on black shoes” — something “our students should not have to worry about.” 

Rouse said that the idea to move commencement from the football stadium to the UIC Pavilion was prompted by increased student enrollment, concerns about physically disabled and handicapped attendees and the uncertainty related to inclement weather. 

Rouse said that the move to UIC could also translate into a possible cost saving. The cost of renting the Pavilion would be $31,390, with guests having to pay $11 for parking. The district’s current graduation expenses are $47,670, according to district data. 

If the district decided to pay for guest parking, which would be for 1,000 cars, the cost would be $49,390 and the potential savings would be wiped out.  

If the district moved to the UIC Pavilion, students would be able to bring more than the maximum five guests that they’re currently allotted. The UIC Pavilion holds 9,500 people while the football stadium holds around 4,200 people, with an additional 1,700 overflow seats in the auditorium, Rouse said. 

Rouse and Pruitt-Adams also explained that the district needed to be proactive about confronting the deteriorating condition of the field house which is the alternative graduation site in case of rain. They said that with construction related to the long-term facilities plan possibly looming, a change of venues would have been likely sooner or later. 

“I do know that change is hard,” Pruitt-Adams said. “I value tradition. I do. And [OPRF’s commencement] is one of the most beautiful ceremonies I have ever seen, but the venue does not make it a beautiful ceremony. You can have the archway, you can have all of that, at UIC.” 

Most board members expressed their support for both of the changes.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

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