History of Stevenson High School
At the official dedication of Adlai E. Stevenson High School in November 1965, Superintendent Dr. Harold Banser observed that the school was "born of a conflict, nurtured by adversity and destined for greatness." Stevenson had indeed been born in conflict. Prior to 1965, students from the area attended school at Ela-Vernon High School in Lake Zurich. In 1964, however, there was growing disagreement between the western (Lake Zurich) and eastern (current Stevenson) sections of the district about the direction the school should take. The eastern section’s desire to have a greater focus on college preparation in the high school curriculum was one area of disagreement.
In 1964, the Ela-Vernon District voted to build a second high school in Prairie View for students living in the eastern half of the area. The conflict between the two sections of the district continued to grow, however, until June 1965, when the Lake Zurich area decided to secede and create its own unit school district serving kindergarten through 12th grades. With less than three months before the opening of school, residents of the Stevenson area were left with an unfinished building, no school board or administration, and no faculty.
Seven community members were chosen to serve on the inaugural District 125 Board of Education, led by its first president, Daniel Schuffman. He was joined by Richard Cromartie, Roger Nelson, Travis Nelson, William Salzman, Lorenz Schmidt, and George Weiland.
One of the first tasks facing the new school board was naming this new school. The leading choice early on was Tamarack High School, for a tree indigenous to the area. However, board members changed their minds in July 1965 following the death of one of the district’s most prominent residents. Adlai E. Stevenson II had been the governor of Illinois, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president in 1952 and 1956, and the United States’ ambassador to the United Nations.
The decision was not as easy as it may appear today: Lake County then was Republican dominated, and Stevenson was a Democrat. Also, there was some reluctance to name the school after a prominent person because of the experience of an elementary school in Chicago, which named the school after an elected official — only to see him convicted of stealing thousands of dollars and sent to jail. However, the board was convinced that there was no such revelation forthcoming on Stevenson, and approved the name change.
Adlai Stevenson II was widely considered to be one of the most eloquent and wittiest statesmen of his time, and other names and titles associated with the new school — the Patriots (nickname), the Ambassador
(yearbook), the Statesman
(student newspaper), the Wit
(student literary journal) — flowed from the background and characteristics of the man.
The new school also faced its share of adversity. When it opened in September 1965, Stevenson High School had 467 students, 31 teachers and three administrators. But there was no principal, and no desks for students -- the furniture had been shipped to Prairie View, Texas by mistake. Students sat on concrete floors and shared textbooks and materials. There were no books in the library, so teachers and other community members went door-to-door asking for donations.
Tom Baumann, a member of the original faculty and the school’s first football coach, remembered trying to purchase equipment for his first team in the spring of 1965. "We went out to buy football gear, and I can still remember going into the sporting goods store," he said. "They asked, ‘What’s the name of your school?’ And I said, ‘We don’t really know.’ They asked, ‘What are your school colors going to be?’ And I said, ‘We don’t really know. Give us white.’ "
Despite the shaky beginning, the pioneers of Stevenson High School never wavered in their dedication and their desire for excellence.
"We were a dedicated group," said Travis Nelson, a member of the original Stevenson school board. "Sometimes we would work until one, two or even three o’clock in the morning. We wanted to create the best high school in the country."
Beyond the "Best and Brightest"
Another challenge Stevenson has overcome is creating a culture that seeks success for all students through an egalitarian model that has expanded opportunities for all, rather than limiting them to the "best and brightest" pupils.
The shift coincided with two pivotal events in the 1980s: the release of A Nation of Risk
, a federal report indicting the state of American education, and the arrival of Dr. Richard P. DuFour as school principal. The District 125 Board of Education used the report and the hiring of the reform-minded DuFour as a springboard to set into words an expansive re-commitment to excellence that reflected the desires of a growing community increasingly focused on ensuring a quality education for its children.
At the heart of the reform effort, and still serving as the nucleus for today’s operating philosophy, was a question: "What do we do when students don’t learn?" The response had several layers. The broadest was the Student Services Division’s "Pyramid of Interventions," which put into place a safety net of policies and procedures meant to catch students who were struggling academically and otherwise. Full-time adult tutors, guided study classes, and greater communication between teachers and counselors were among the intervention strategies added. Stevenson also shifted to grading periods of six weeks in length instead of the traditional nine. The six-week grading periods provided progress reports at the midpoint, meaning parents received updates on their students’ academic performance every three weeks. Another innovation was the Freshman Mentor Program, a year-long effort to ease the transition to high school life — and Stevenson, in particular — for ninth-grade students.
Another shift, perhaps more dramatic, was the decision to eliminate the philosophy of "sorting and selecting" students that had been in place, and a desire to allow more than the top 10% of students to experience college-level work before leaving high school. Specifically, the school’s leadership wanted more students to enroll in the Advanced Placement courses that have a rigor and breadth equivalent to classes taken by first-year collegians. The school board set in place a goal for Stevenson that stands to this day: To have every student take at least one AP class before graduating. Today, nearly three-fourths of all Stevenson students finish high school with at least one AP class on their transcript, making SHS one of the world’s leaders. Nearly 1,500 Stevenson students are part of the program, and they take more than 3,000 end-of-year AP exams given by the College Board. Despite steady growth in the program, scores on AP exams have remained consistently high. Student scores on the country’s college-entrance examinations, the ACT and SAT, also increased steadily despite swelling enrollment.
Also part of the changing culture was an increased emphasis on student participation in co-curricular programs. Studies within and without the school have shown that students perform better in the classroom when they are engaged in school activities outside the classroom. Stevenson’s student activities program grew exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, and combined with athletics and intramurals, annually provides a menu of more than 100 clubs and teams for students to choose from.
Leading the charge was DuFour, who served as Stevenson’s principal from 1983 to 1991, then was elevated to superintendent in 1992. He served in that role until retiring in 2002, and since then has become one of the leading voices for school reform within the education community.
The Downside of Success
Stevenson’s academic upswing has had its downsides.
Two interdisciplinary programs with fervent support among small sections of the faculty— the Freshman Studies Program in the early 1970s, and SAIL (the Stevenson Academy for Integrated Learning) in the late 1990s — were abandoned.
A more widespread consequence was the dilution of the high school experience by students gaming the grading system. The push to attend leading colleges and universities led many students to focus only on courses that would appear to improve their admission chances, while abandoning elective courses that could broaden their horizons and enhance their lives. Traditional vocational programs such as auto mechanics and cosmetology were phased out, and now are available to students only through a cooperative program at the College of Lake County. Other electives have struggled to reach enrollment minimums, a battle that continues today.
By the late 1990s, student competition had become so intense that the school formed a task force to look for solutions. The most significant recommendations from the task force led to the end of the traditional graduation honors of valedictorian and salutatorian — which weren’t instituted at Stevenson until the late 1970s — and the elimination of class rank. School officials also sought to encourage students to find a balance that would allow for a challenging class load that also had room for the chance to explore areas of interest outside the core subjects.
Becoming a Professional Learning Community
Beginning in the 1980s, Stevenson High School emerged as one of the leading examples of a professional learning community. The hallmarks of a professional learning community include a collaborative atmosphere among faculty — within and between academic divisions — and the expansion of ways to measure the effectiveness of classroom teaching. Teachers across the curriculum establish "SMART" goals that enhance their effectiveness and provide a clearer picture of their pedagogical proficiency. These goals are: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bound.
In April 2008, the nation’s leading weekly publication covering secondary education, Education Week
, featured Stevenson in an article about schools that had absorbed the professional learning community idea into its daily culture. The article’s author, Vaishali Honawar, summarized how the professional learning community idea impacts Stevenson teachers:
At Stevenson, teachers meet in course-specific, and sometimes
Interdisciplinary teams each week to discuss strategies for
improvement; craft common assessments, the results of which
are analyzed to improve instruction; and brainstorm lesson plans.
Instead of the isolation of their classrooms, they spend
their time between classes and before and after school in
open office areas where their desks abut those of their course
peers. The arrangement ensures that the give-and-take between
teacher teams is almost constant.
"Many of the best things we do don’t happen in team meetings,"
said social studies teacher Brian Rusin. "The real collaboration
Even professional development at the school is targeted at the
teams, and the hiring process for new teachers takes the teams
into consideration. Candidates meet the teachers who constitute
the teams they’ll be in if hired, in addition to administrators
and department heads."
Teams are determined primarily by academic course, and within each is a leadership structure that gives teachers the opportunity to guide team functions in exchange for reduced class loads. Teachers with aspirations beyond the classroom can hone their leadership skills in the team setting as a precursor to seeking administrative posts. Stevenson has a strong tradition of promoting from within, giving preference to candidates who are familiar with the school’s culture and philosophies.
The Enrollment Challenge
From 1965 until 2005, the greatest obstacle facing Stevenson was enrollment. The student body grew steadily and without pause for nearly 40 years — enrollment declined in only two years from 1965 through 2005 — before reaching a peak of 4,573 in the 2005-06 school year. Since then, enrollment has begun a steady decline.
Accommodating the expanding student population required a series of building expansions and renovations that saw the school’s physical size increase more than six times from its original square footage of 113,000 square feet. Stevenson has undergone eight major building projects since 1965 to add classrooms and other facilities. The largest expansion at Stevenson occurred in 1995, when the school’s size grew by more than 50 percent with a $25 million project that included creation of the 60-classroom East Building, the Performing Arts Center, the Patriot Aquatic Center, and the Technology Center, among other improvements.
The 1995 expansion was the result of a hotly contested community referendum three years earlier that asked residents whether the district should create a second high school or expand Stevenson. Fifty-two percent of residents supported keeping Stevenson as the district’s only high school, while 48% wanted a second facility.
Today, rare is the voice raised in favor of creating a second high school. The decision to keep Stevenson as the district’s lone high school has worked out well. Even though the school’s enrollment has swelled greatly since the 1992 referendum, the academic performance of students has kept pace. The steady pace of academic improvement is one reason why voters gave overwhelming support to the district’s last venture at the ballot box: a 2002 referendum seeking an increase in the education tax rate. Nearly 70% of the community supported the request, and the resulting stabilization of the district’s finances is projected to help Stevenson stave off the need for any other referenda until sometime in the millennium’s second decade.
Fulfilling the Founding Vision
Stevenson High School has advanced from humble beginnings to become one of the most respected public, open enrollment high schools in America. Stevenson is the only public high school in Illinois to receive four Blue Ribbon Awards for Excellence in Education from the U.S. Department of Education. SHS won the award in 1987, 1991, 1998, and 2002. Stevenson also received the U.S. Department of Education's New American High Schools Award in 1998. Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report consistently have ranked Stevenson among the top high schools in America.
It appears that the prediction made more than 40 years ago has become a reality. As students, parents and staff remain true to the traditions of collaboration and extra effort that have built Stevenson, we will become a school "destined for greatness."