One can see much continuity in the 150-year history of Oak Park and River Forest High School, especially when it comes to excellence, but in thinking about its racial history, it makes sense to identify two distinct periods, even two distinct schools. The first period lasted about 100 years, a period with no racial integration to speak of; the second emerged after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., began to have its impact on Oak Park and River Forest. The school’s motto, “Those Things That Are Best,” has continued to define the aspirations of the school, but while “best” was synonymous with “excellent” during the earlier period, in the current era the school’s bywords have become “excellence and equity.”

The first OPRFHS was a remarkably successful sorting institution, funneling students through its four years so that the relatively few students remaining in honors track classes senior year reached the highest levels of academic excellence and attended the nation’s elite colleges and universities, making OPRF one of the top performing schools by any measure, not only in the state, but nationwide. Further, in its quest to turn out well-rounded students, OPRF provided rich extracurricular offerings. The school’s superb music groups offered concerts locally, sometimes in national venues, and even on concert tours through Europe. Theater productions drew large local audiences and excelled in state competitions. Athletic teams won state championships in nearly every sport, sometimes gaining national recognition. Without question, the most important influence in making the early OPRF what it became was Marion Ross McDaniel, superintendent from 1912 until his death in 1939. Under McDaniel, the school developed, in the words of Don Offermann in his doctoral dissertation on McDaniel, “a culture in which there were academic and athletic winners and losers and no apologies for the latter, for losers themselves had decided to take the road to failure by their lack of energy, effort, and enthusiasm,” and, according to Offermann, himself OPRF superintendent from 1992-1999, “The values McDaniel cultivated in the school culture reflected the values of the community.”

When it came to race, those values revealed themselves most clearly during an episode in 1937 involving OPRF’s undefeated football team, which some called the best prep football team in the country, and Lewis Pope, a star in the offensive backfield and one of the few Black students to attend OPRF before the 1970s. At season’s end, Miami Central High School in Florida challenged OPRF to meet in Miami for a “national championship game,” but would not host a team with a Black player. OPRF received several communications, including letters from Percy Julian and the New York City chapter of the NAACP, urging the school to reject the invitation, but McDaniel wanted the team to play and had the OPRF head coach ask Pope to stay home while the rest of the team traveled to Miami, which he agreed to do. In 1936, African American track star Jesse Owens had humiliated Hitler and his racial theories by winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics; in the summer of 1937, African American boxer Joe Lewis had won the world heavyweight championship; but in the fall of 1937, to play a football game for a fantasy high school championship, OPRF surrendered to the Jim Crow South. The game ended in a tie, but along the long arc of the moral universe, history has judged the school and community of the day as retrograde losers.

Lew Pope

In 1996, OPRF invited Lew Pope back to the school to honor him with a Tradition of Excellence Award. Much had changed. The school’s Black population had grown from a fraction of one percent throughout its first century to about 27 percent by the nineties, with another several percent identifying themselves as mixed race. The school no longer aspired to winnow winners from losers but strove instead to individualize instruction to the extent resources allowed, enshrining in its first strategic plan in 1994 the overarching goal of providing a superior education to all students to enable them to realize their human potential. Adopting this goal was a signal moment in a movement, beginning in the seventies, gathering much steam by the nineties, and attaining unchallenged dominance in the first decades of the 21st century, aimed at achieving racial equity along with academic excellence. Indeed, throughout the 50-year history of the second OPRFHS, the school has enacted many concrete initiatives in service of explicit school policies in its efforts to bring educational excellence to the life of each of its students.

The sidebar to this article contains a partial list of the equity-related efforts the school has made, especially from the 1990s on. An account of the successes and failures of these undertakings is far beyond the scope of this article, but the list may provide a sense of the approaches the school has taken on equity issues in recent decades. 

In my early years at OPRF, as we began to recognize significant gaps in student success on a racial basis, I along with many like-minded members of the staff felt that if there were a school in the country that could eliminate these gaps, OPRF, with its desire, expertise, resources, and commitment, was it. But by the mid-nineties when Superintendent Offermann initiated an ambitious, 10-year, gap-closing program for which, he announced, “failure [was] not an option,” I had come to understand that the task would require much more than this high school’s desire, expertise, resources, commitment, a well-intentioned program, and a motivational slogan, and I had become certain that the program’s failure was not only an option but inevitable. The problems of inequity in American society run deep, and it is far beyond the capacity of a high school to solve them. Yet, as the various measures of academic outcomes continue to disappoint us on a macro scale, the school’s many worthy efforts to address the issues have often brought appreciable educational successes. The more we have committed to the project, the better have been the results. Some strategies have been more effective than others, the idea being to evaluate, then expand, improve, or eliminate, as appropriate. But in these early decades of OPRF 2.0, innumerable individual students have benefited greatly from the school’s efforts, in many cases their lives immeasurably improved. I’ve seen the results on the human, personal level; I’ve heard the moving testimonials from the heart; I’ve appreciated the complex process of a homogeneous, high-performing school remaking itself into a welcoming, diverse, high-performing school to which every student fully belongs. Decision makers at OPRF have understood that even a great school can do only so much, but it must do as much of the so-much as possible. OPRF has made manifold, focused institutional efforts to transform its proud early history into a prouder, evolving tradition. If the efforts continue, and the progressive OPRF spirit catches on throughout our society and its schools, the day may come, on another big anniversary, when all Oak Parkers and River Foresters will look at the results of the ongoing, honorable work of this venerable, estimable school with immense satisfaction.

Steven Gevinson was an English teacher at OPRF from 1978-2010, Division Head 2002-10; School Board Member 2013-2017; parent of three OPRF graduates

Equity-Related Initiatives (partial list)

Diversity Training

• ADL’s A World of Difference Program
• Kochman Group
• Local facilitators as part of 1996-2006 program
• Courageous Conversations About Race (CCAR)
• Numerous visiting speakers and facilitators
• Numerous professional development sessions and workshops


• Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) research studies and conferences
• Consultation with local researchers 
• African American Achievement committees and reports
• Consortium for Educational Change (CEC) curriculum and conferences
• CEC Book Club
• Collaborative Action Research for Racial Equity (CARE)

Goal Setting

• 1994 Strategic Plan
• 2017 Strategic Plan
• Racial Equity Policy


• CEC 
• CEC Four-District Network
• Illinois Coalition of Educational Equity Leaders (ICEEL)
• Illinois Partners of Educators for Inclusion and Equity (IPEIE)
• MSAN Intersectional Social Justice Collaborative for High School Students

Curriculum & Instruction

• African American History
• African History
• African American Literature A
• World Studies
• Multicultural Literature inclusion
• Project Scholar
• College Prep Scholar
• Clustering in Honors classes
• Collaborative Teaching Model
• 4-for-100 school-within-a-school
• Team-teaching in Transitions and College Prep classes
• Social-Emotional Learning
• Numerous divisional efforts, e.g., Learning Teams
• Student Support Program (SSP) 
• Response to Intervention (RTI)
• Standardized test prep classes
• Summer School bridge program
• Numerous Reading programs
• Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS)
• “Honors for All”
• AP African American Studies Pilot
• Equity and Youth Action


• Gospel Choir
• Blacks Organized for Student Support (BOSS)
• Students Organized Against Racism (SOAR)
• Spoken Word Poetry Club
• Black Leaders Union (BLU)
• Hip-Hop Club


• Evolution of Dean/Counseling/Student Support system
• Behavior Education Plan (BEP)
• Culture, Climate, and Behavior Committee (CCB)
• Trauma-Informed Interventions and Restorative Practices

Student Recognition

• Human Relations Award
• Student Hero Award

Mentoring & Coaching

• Senior Instructional Leadership Corps (SILC)
• Peer mentors
• Motivational Mentorship Program
• Peer coaches
• Racial Equity Coach

• Minority recruitment and retention work
• Director of Employee Relations and Recruitment 
• Additions of student support personnel
• Office of Equity and Student Success

Community Outreach

• African American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education (APPLE)
• National African American Parent Involvement Dinner (NAAPID)
• Community Council
• Community Outreach Coordinator

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