When Central School, the precursor to what we now call Oak Park and River Forest High School, was founded in 1873, “progressive education” was not a buzzword among educators.
Yet a progressive approach to education has shaped Oak Park and River Forest High School since early on, largely due to two pioneering educators—John Hannah, principal from 1895 to 1914, and Marion Ross McDaniel, principal from 1914 until 1939.
Hannah believed that to receive a well-rounded education, students should also challenge themselves to excel in a variety of areas, including sports and extracurricular activities. To that end, he established a physical education program for both boys and girls. And, he sought to construct a building that would support his progressive ideas, which also included a school library to replace individual classroom libraries, as well as construction of science laboratories and a large room to house the student orchestra. In 1912, he supported the creation of a student newspaper.
When Hannah left to become head of the Illinois State Board of Education, he was succeeded by McDaniel. McDaniel’s goal was to build on what Hannah began in the design of school facilities and determining the appropriate curriculum and athletic activities where students would excel. He also searched the state and nation to recruit high caliber teachers.
“His forte was building a strong faculty, people who were innovative and willing to try new things,” says Don Vogel, retired OPRF teacher and unofficial school historian. “This goes back to the notion of trying to get students to achieve in the classroom and on the field. If you look at teachers at the time, they included John Gehleman, the English teacher who taught Ernest Hemingway. He also hired Bob Zupke, who coached the football team that won three national championships between 1910 and 1912.”
Other milestones in OPRF’s progressive education have included the offering of summer school in the early 1900s; the establishment of the Crest literary magazine and a developmental reading program to support students preparing for the college board exams in the 1950s, along with the launch of a driver’s education program.
By the 1960s, OPRF and a few other schools nationwide were selected by the College Board to pilot early Advanced Placement courses. OPRF was identified as a national model of a comprehensive high school in a 1968 Conant Report, a national study led by Harvard University President James Conant.
In the early 1970s, the Experimental Program, or XP, was launched as a school within a school, providing differentiated instruction as an alternative to the traditional classroom structure. The program lasted 20 years. Also in the ‘70s, a course in ethnic studies was first offered.
As the community’s population became more racially diverse during the 1970s, OPRF’s curriculum began to reflect the diversity of its student body as well. This included the creation of a gospel choir and, later, the introduction of courses in African history and African American history.
During the 1990s, African American achievement became a focus of OPRF. The school administration collaborated with Evanston Township High School to identify racially diverse schools nationwide that were interested in sharing best practices to address this achievement gap.
The quest to excel and provide the most progressive education continues to this day to meet the ever changing needs of students, the community, and the nation.