Oak Park and River Forest High School has been named “an exemplary school” by the Illinois State Board of Education as part of the release of this year’s school report card.
The news came on Oct. 28 and placed OPRF in the top 10% of all Illinois high schools based on a range of measures including graduation rate, SAT scores in math and English, and the level of chronic absenteeism.
The state’s rating scale ranges from exemplary to school’s needing “comprehensive support.” The rating system was inaugurated in 2018 and to this point OPRF had been rated as a “commendable” school.
Lynda Parker, OPRF’s principal the past two years, explained how excited she was when she heard the news. “We were working towards this but never thought it would happen this year,” she said.
In a note to the community from Supt. Greg Johnson, he said the school’s strategic plan includes a goal to achieve exemplary status by 2024. “Meeting that goal two years ahead of schedule was certainly not a given,” he wrote.
Parker said the school has a range of plans to further improve the learning environment. Those include this year’s overhaul of the freshman curriculum “to prepare freshmen for classes later on in school and encourage them to strive high” she said.
OPRF has also focused on reducing a rising rate of chronic absenteeism, one of the matters measured in the state report card. Absenteeism had reached a 5-year high of 20.5% in 2021. Parker said a range of responses including hallway sweeps, stricter tardy policies, one minute warning music, and an Attendance Matters campaign brought that number to 13.6%, a five year low on the current report card.
The school, said Parker, offers a variety of opportunities for students to recommend ways to make the school better. A mental health period was offered just last month which instructed students on breathing and mindfulness exercises and included group discussions. Though not well received by all students, the school plans to continue events like these in the future in hopes of creating a more productive school environment.
Erika Eckhart, the head of OPRFs English department has been at OPRF for 5 years. She said the English department has plans “to create a curriculum that increases equity.” Eckhart said news of the exemplary status created excitement and surprise among teachers.
Maria Kunigk-Baker, a 16-year-old junior at OPRF, said she found the news honestly surprising. She said she doesn’t find many of the techniques used by OPRF helpful but does think there are many intelligent students at OPRF and great teachers who help make OPRF a better school.
Parker said attention to small details and the success they bring “is what pushed us over the edge to become exemplary,” she said.
Ashley Brown is a student at OPRF and a contributing reporter for Wednesday Journal.