This fall, the community celebrates a century and a half of its public high school, making OPRF older than Chicago’s “L” system, 13 of the 50 United States, and, surprisingly, the villages of Oak Park and River Forest.
In the 1850s, Illinois was divided into 36-square-mile townships. Today’s Oak Park was part of Cicero Township, which also included land that is now Berwyn, Cicero, and the Austin neighborhood. Similarly, River Forest was part of Proviso Township. Harlem Avenue separated the two townships, just as it separates the villages of Oak Park and River Forest today.
By the end of the 1850s, the Oak Park area had its first school district–Cicero Township School District #1. A brick schoolhouse, located at the southeast corner of Lake Street and Forest Avenue, was home to the Central School.
In 1873, Central School began offering upper level classes for “older and more dignified boys and girls,” according to a 1937 historical survey of Oak Park. In 1877, James B. Herrick, Walter Gale, and Herbert Whipple became the first three graduates of Oak Park High School.
At this time, publicly-funded high schools were a recent development. Attending high school, said OPRF historian Frank Lipo, was uncommon and a somewhat elite practice. These upper level classes offered a “classical education,” said Lipo. “By the mid 1870s, (the textbooks they were using show) they taught Latin, botany, physiology, philosophy, rhetoric, geography, bookkeeping–a little more practical in terms of business careers–as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic.”
By 1886, records show the school offered four different programs for students: the classical course, the Latin scientific course, the modern language course, and the English course.
As Oak Park’s population increased–from an estimated 200 in 1870 to over 2,000 by 1881–class sizes steadily grew as well–from three students to 42 in the same year, according to a 1972 article. At the end of 1891, the school moved down the street to a new three-story building located on the corner of Lake and East.
The 1890s brought political turmoil to Cicero Township. At the same time, discussions began between Oak Park and River Forest about creating a high school to serve both communities. River Forest offered two years of high school education in an elementary school. To complete high school, students “usually attended Oak Park or Austin High School on a tuition basis,” according to a book on the history of OPRF from 1873 to 1976.
In two different 1899 referendums, voters living in today’s Oak Park and River Forest voted to create Oak Park and River Forest Township High School. While River Forest had been already incorporated as a village in 1880, it wasn’t until 1902 that Oak Park officially broke away from Cicero Township.
Oak Park and River Forest Township High School began instruction in the Lake and East building in 1900. By the end of the decade, the school had moved across the street onto a plot of land located at Ontario and Scoville, where it has been located ever since.