On Oct. 28, the Illinois State Board of Education released its 2022 Illinois Report Card for all schools in the state. I’m thrilled to share that, for the first time, the state has designated Oak Park and River Forest High School an “exemplary” school. That means we rank in the top 10% of all high schools in Illinois.

This news is particularly gratifying, given that last school year we were only beginning to emerge from the pandemic and trying to establish a sense of normalcy. It’s a testament to collective effort and, on behalf of the district administration, I want to thank the entire school community for your support.

Since 2018, the annual report card has included one of four summative designations for each school: exemplary, commendable, targeted support, or comprehensive support. Prior to the current report card, OPRF was designated a commendable school, based on overall performance on eight academic indicators: graduation rate, chronic absenteeism, 9th graders on track to graduate, math proficiency on the SAT, English language arts proficiency on the SAT, climate, participation rate on the Illinois Science Assessment, and English learner progress to proficiency.

One of the goals in our strategic plan was to achieve exemplary status by 2024; meeting that goal two years ahead of schedule was certainly not a given. While we celebrated the return to full in-person school last fall, we also faced a lot of challenges.

Students persevered through the culture shock of being back in a building with nearly 4,000 people and relearning how to “do school” after a year and a half of isolation. Our faculty and staff rose to the challenge of not just catching up students academically but also making sure they felt emotionally safe and cared for. Parents had to adjust, too, especially to new attendance procedures that, to be honest, weren’t universally embraced.

We had analyzed our school data and found that OPRF already was in the top 10% of Illinois schools in terms of SAT performance. However, our rate of chronic absenteeism was unacceptably high. As a school, we took deliberate action to drive down absenteeism. We rolled out an Attendance Matters campaign, conducted hall sweeps to ensure students were in class on time, and implemented a new rule that five tardies to a single class convert to an unexcused absence.

Because families hung in there and helped reinforce our approach, we saw a dramatic change in chronic absenteeism, which fell from a five-year high of 20.5% on the 2021 report card to a low of 13.6% on this year’s report card.

We’re proud that OPRF stands out in comparison to our peer districts. But I want to be clear: We still need to address areas where inequities continue to exist, and we always want to ensure we are helping all of our students realize the highest levels of achievement possible.

To that end, recent or upcoming initiatives include switching to an honors curriculum for nearly all freshman core classes, revamping the math curriculum to address learning gaps, increasing AP class offerings, improving student engagement with a classroom ban on cellphones, and focusing on restorative education practices as part of behavior management.

These are significant changes, and they aren’t always easy to make. But thanks to the ongoing support of our entire community, we will continue pushing toward the goal of achieving equitable excellence for all students.

Greg Johnson is the superintendent of OPRF High School.

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