Events at Taft High School to mark 75th anniversary
by BRIAN NADIG
The fact that there is a start of a new grassroots effort to expand 75-year-old Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., is not a surprise given that the school’s traditionally strong enrollment helped lead to building additions in the late 1950s and early 1970s.
Until Taft held its first classes on Sept. 7, 1939, children in the Norwood Park area attended Schurz High School, 3601 N. Milwaukee Ave. However, a growing number of young families and other issues led to the Chicago Board of Education to begin planning for a new Northwest Side high school in 1937.
"Transportation was not good to Schurz," Taft High School Alumni Association vice president and local historian Anne Lunde said.
The main way for students to get to Schurz was to get on a Milwaukee Avenue trolley in Jefferson Park. There also was a motor coach service that picked up students in the Edison Park area, but it was not always available, Lunde said.
At the time it opened, the three-story high school had 22 classrooms, two gymnasiums, a swimming pool, seven science labs, a library and three arts and crafts rooms, Lunde said. The main entrance of the school was on Natoma Avenue, but it was moved to Hurlbut Street and then in the late 1990s to Bryn Mawr Avenue.
The school is named for William Howard Taft, who was the 27th president of the United States president and the 10th U.S. Supreme Court chief justice. Area residents contacted Taft’s son, U.S. Senator Robert Taft, about using his father’s name, and the senator approved the request, Lunde said.
Taft’s first principal, Leo Hoefer, died in 1954, and his successor, Mary Gillies, oversaw a ground-breaking ceremony for an addition to the school which opened in 1959. Oriole Park School was operating on a double shift of classes, and school system officials knew that Taft would become overcrowded, Lunde said.
Taft’s enrollment reached 2,900 in the 1960s, and freshmen went to classes at Norwood Park School due to the lack of space at the high school. In 1973 Taft principal Dr. John Graven oversaw the construction of a second addition to the school.
During the 1980s Taft principal Sam Ozaki received recognition as the first Japanese-American principal in the Chicago Public Schools system and as a survivor of a World War II American internment camp.
Ozaki was Taft’s principal during a time of drastic change in the enrollment of the school. In 1980 a consent decree created a volunteer busing system in Chicago, and white flight hit many schools. Lunde said that adding to the problem was that fact that many area parents worried about teachers’ strikes which had occurred and enrolled their children in private schools.
Lunde said that adding to the problem was the fact that many parents worried about teachers’ strikes which had occurred and enrolled their children in private schools.
By the early 1990s, about 85 percent of Taft students lived outside the school’s attendance area, including many students from the Austin neighborhood and overflow students from the overcrowded Foreman High School. Local school council meetings at Taft often featured debates on whether Taft had become what some LSC members called a "dumping ground," and at one meeting the principal had a cut on his forehead that he received breaking up a gang fight.
Dr. Arthur Tarvardian was named Taft’s principal in 1988, and he asked teachers to provide a list of students who were not expected to graduate due to disciplinary and other problems, and many of the students ended up transferring.
Tarvardian also curtailed Taft’s participation in the enrollment lottery, a random selection process that was used to diversify schools. He argued that Taft could maintain a diverse student body by focusing on the recruitment of local students due to the changing demographics of the Northwest Side.
By 1999 the school’s enrollment declined to fewer than 1,500, but it soon began to increase. Lunde said that in the early 1990s several of Taft’s feeder elementary schools were overcrowded due to an influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe. In addition, new initiatives such as the International Baccalaureate Program and the Seventh and Eighth Grade Academic Center appealed to local families.
Taft’s enrollment this year is about 3,250 students, more than 80 percent of whom live in the school’s attendance area. The Taft Local School Council LSC has formed a committee to consider how to relieve overcrowding, including a possible addition or a reduction in the school’s attendance area.
Taft has many noteworthy alumni, including U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Larry Marsh and "Grease" co-writer James Jacobs, who have been inducted into the alumni association’s "Hall of Fame."
The Taft High School Foundation was formed recently in an effort to raise funds for the school. A 75th anniversary event brought in close to $20,000 in donations.
The alumni association can be reached at www.taftalumni.org, and the foundation can be reached at www.tafthsfoundation.org.