A Brief History of The Winnetka Public Schools

  • "The story of a small public school system which for nearly half a century has been on the growing edge of education and has become widely known throughout the world is worth telling. It is the story of the way a community, Board of Education, teachers and administration have consistently worked together in an attempt to make the schools as good as possible for the individual children and for the potential contribution each can make to the well-being and progress of the community and society at large." The History and Significance of an Educational Experiment by C. Washburne & S. Marland, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall (1963), p. vii.

    In October 1859 The Winnetka Public Schools opened its first classes in a building at the corner of Elm and Maple Streets, on what is now the Village Green. Since that initial gathering of 25 students more than a century and a half ago, The Winnetka Public Schools has grown not only in enrollment, but in its highly regarded reputation as a beacon for educators around the globe seeking best practices in teaching and an enduring philosophy of learning.

    Education – A Priority from the Start

    Hubbard Woods students in the classroom A decade before the Village of Winnetka was incorporated in 1869, families in the town made private donations to finance the first public school. Years later, before the first World War, a handful of citizens gathered to discuss starting a private preparatory school like those they had attended in the East. They ended up instead planning a system of public schools. "Why don't we make the public schools of our Village so good that we will be proud to send our children to them?"
pronounced citizen Edwin Fetcher, speaking in the early 1890s.

    Buoyed by that bold spirit this band of citizens committed to that goal, forming Winnetka's first school board in 1892. For the next two decades the Board's attention was focused on the purchase of land and equipping facilities to accommodate a growing number of students. By 1918 both Greeley and Hubbard Woods Schools were opened and the land was purchased for the building of Skokie School.

    Confident that they had the facilities issues under control, the Board sought new and visionary leadership. In May, 1919, they hired Carleton W. Washburne as the superintendent of schools. It was this 29-year old educator who would bring their ambitious dreams for their schools to a reality. As the architect of "The Winnetka Plan," Washburne's innovations - individualized instruction, hands-on learning, attention to the development of the whole child, a focus on research and development of curriculum materials, and a thoughtful and comprehensive program of staff development - were the pillars of his philosophy of progressive education and continue to be cornerstones of today's Winnetka Public Schools.

    Creating A Community of Learners

    Superintendent Washburne and the teachers of the early decades of The Winnetka Public Schools are appropriately credited with the expertise and leadership behind the schools' many successes and accomplishments. Not only did Washburne have a clear vision of how children should be educated, he had the intuitive and practical wisdom about how teachers learned best and realized that Winnetka teachers would need extra training to implement the progressive techniques and approaches he planned. In addition, Washburne was mindful that parents and community members needed to be educated about progressive teaching, a whole- child-centered philosophy and what metrics would be used to assess its efficacy, as well as the costs involved in supporting this approach to education.

    Washburne created several mechanisms to ensure the requisite revisions and long-term transfer of these innovative practices so that all classrooms would benefit from research-based practice. His ideas were simple and straightforward:

    • Hire the best teachers and give them the responsibility and access to resources that would ensure their continued interest and participation in crafting the curriculum experiences and materials.
    • Regard the teachers as active researchers and leaders and make this part of the culture of The Winnetka Public Schools so that the best teachers would be attracted to work in them.

    The Departments of Educational Research and a Publications Department were integral to the District's early curriculum work. Teachers engaged in research studies to establish academic standards coordinated with children's levels of growth and development. Interest in the amount of time spent teaching a concept as related to mastery prompted the research question: "What was the opportune time for teaching a particular concept and when was the child most ready to learn that concept?" Winnetka's Publications Department, still in existence today, published booklets and teaching materials based on the teachers' research findings that were used in Winnetka classrooms as well as countless schools across the country requesting them. The research results were published in national professional journals, thus having an impact on the larger education world.

    Key factors for success were empowering the teachers to create curriculum units and materials, to closely study the impact of each lesson and, most important, for teachers to share their findings across schools so that all the teachers were equally in the know about best practices and future developments. Regardless of what school they were assigned to, the teachers had a common bond of purposeful engagement and a sense of professionalism not found in public schools of that time.

    More than eighty years later, The Winnetka Public Schools remain committed to investing in teacher development, promoting a research-based approach to curriculum development, and partnering with parents in their children's education. As in Washburne's time, these fundamentals constitute the foundation of our programs for educating our students.

    The Story of Our Schools

    Since the early 1900s, District 36 has maintained a long-standing commitment to the neighborhood schools concept. The School Board's goals are to provide safe and age-appropriate school buildings that continue the high quality educational program long associated with The Winnetka Public Schools. Currently students attend five school buildings: Crow Island School, Greeley School, Hubbard Woods School, The Skokie School, and Carleton Washburne School.

    An Enduring PhilosophyStudents at Skokie School

    A distinguishing element of the Winnetka Public Schools is that a substantial amount of today’s current educational philosophy and classroom practice is readily recognized as extensions and refinements of the well-researched practices of Washburne’s era. Foundational beliefs and experiments in learning have endured and, in the spirit of the philosophy, have evolved and improved as recognized practice of today’s Winnetka Public Schools (e.g., heterogeneous classroom groupings, differentiated instruction, and project based learning).

    In the same spirit embraced by those early Winnetka teachers, today’s teachers continue to be engaged in research, dialogue, and consistent examination of teaching practices and learning outcomes that result in systematic updates and modifications of curriculum based on those findings. The foundational elements of the Winnetka Public School’s practice are still very much alive and well today.

    "Much of what we do today in The Winnetka Public Schools is rooted in history and tradition - a history of excellence, a continual focus on research-based teaching, an environment that enhances everyone's growth, and a community that works together on behalf of children."
    The Winnetka Public Schools: Traditions, Transitions, Transformation by Rebecca van der Bogert, Superintendent (1994-2007)

    The impact of The Winnetka Public Schools upon the field of teaching was noted by education writer Ruth Moss in her 1954 article "Winnetka: Classroom for the World."

    "The importance of the Winnetka story is not limited to the village boundaries... Much of what is considered new in education either originated in Winnetka or has been so developed and refined there that the adaptations are credited to its schools... Books and stories (about The Winnetka Public Schools) have been published in 19 countries and in 13 languages. Visitors have come from all parts of the world: staff members have lectured, taught, and demonstrated Winnetka techniques here and abroad." (Moss, 1954).

    The early ideals of Washburne's era continue to inform the philosophy and the daily lessons in each classroom. As in those early days, the parents and community continue to generously assist the schools realize their shared vision with volunteer and citizen involvement and public and private financial support. Committed to excellence through growth and innovation, The Winnetka Public Schools face the next decades with eagerness and confidence.

    The Archives of The Winnetka Public Schools housed at The Skokie School include Ms. Moss's article and hundreds of articles, archival photos, books, professional journals, newsletters, and an extensive collection of artifacts and memorabilia from The Winnetka Public Schools. To visit this collection contact Mrs. Betty Carbol, Archivist kensicarbol@hotmail.com or contact the District Office (847-446-9400). For a unique and interesting overview of the District’s history, please visit the Philosophy in Brick permanent exhibit housed at Crow Island School (call 847-446-0353 for an appointment).

    Neighborhood Schools

    Hubbard Woods students Skiing  District 36 has maintained a long-standing commitment to the neighborhood schools concept. The School Board's goals have been to provide safe and age-appropriate school buildings that continue the high quality educational program long associated with The Winnetka Public Schools. Currently our students are served in five school buildings.

    Hubbard Woods School was built in 1915 and has the unusual distinction of being the only currently used school building that accommodated a Kindergarten through grade 8 student population in its earliest years. Until 1915 the children in the northern part of Winnetka received their elementary education at Lakeside School, a two-story frame structure at the corner of Burr and Tower Roads that was subsequently closed. A new school was planned on that location and originally named Skokie School. In 1924, to avoid confusion with the newly erected Skokie Junior High School, the name was changed to Hubbard Woods School named after Gilbert Hubbard who arrived in Winnetka in 1871 after the Chicago fire.

    A plaque at The Skokie School lists the more than 700 Winnetka citizens who generously funded the school's construction in 1920. Initially, The Skokie School housed Grades five and six. The Skokie School was closed in 1978, but certainly not forgotten. The community's deep interest and affection for this particular school building was again evidenced in the formation of The Skokie School Foundation whose mission was to save The Skokie School from demolition. True to the predictions of enrollment growth, The Skokie School was reopened in 1998 for grade 6 students after extensive renovation. Following further renovation, The Skokie School welcomed all grade 5 and 6 students in the fall of 2000.

    In 1939, Superintendent Carleton Washburne called upon a firm of young, progressive architects, Perkins, Wheeler, and Will to collaborate with the famous Finnish architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen, and to draw up a plan for a new type of school. He told them he was looking for "a beautiful, practical architectural embodiment of an educational philosophy." Crow Island School opened in 1940, and has been praised throughout the education/architecture world ever since for its beauty, its effectiveness, and its many innovative qualities. Among the many honors that Crow Island School has received is the American Institute of Architects 25-Year Award honoring structures widely recognized to be of special significance and broad influence. In 1990 Crow Island School was designated a National Historic Landmark. Many architectural scholars and historians regard it as the most important school building in United States history.

    Carleton Washburne School, named after the renowned Superintendent opened in 1969 and was designed as a junior high school to house grades 6, 7, and 8. At that time each wing served a single grade level. By 1986, the school's layout had been reshaped by a middle school philosophy, a child-centered approach to education that meets the needs of 10 to 14 year olds and complements the progressive teaching of the elementary schools. Today, approximately 400 students in grades 7 and 8 attend Carleton Washburne School, serving as a middle school and part of a two-building campus with The Skokie School. Carleton Washburne School has had several additions and renovations throughout the years, the most recent addition dedicated in 2009.

    Learn more about the history of The Winnetka Public Schools using the following list of selected resources.

    • A Living Philosophy of Education by Carleton Washburne. New York: J. Day (1940).
    • The History and Significance of an Educational Experiment by Carleton Washburne & Sidney Marland, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall (1963).
    • “Winnetka: Classroom for the World” by Ruth Moss Chicago Tribune Magazine – May 19, 1964.
    • “Alice Beck of Hubbard Woods: Portrait of a Kindergarten Teacher,” by Betty J. Wagner, The Elementary School Journal, May, 1977 (A University of Chicago Journal).
    • Winnetka: Biography of a Village by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. Evanston, IL: The Schori Press 1977.
    • “A School Fit for Children” – Grant Pick for the Chicago Reader (1990). http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/a-school-fit-for-children/Content?o...
    • “Still A Special Place - A History of Crow Island School” by Betty Williams Carbol (1991) Winnetka, IL.
    • Changing Schools – Progressive Education Theory & Practice 1930-1960 (1993) Arthur Zilversmit Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1993).
    • Schools That Work: America's Most Innovative Public Education Programs by George Wood. New York: Penguin Books (1993).
    • History of the Winnetka District #36 Board of Education by Steve Adams (1998).
    • The Search for Common Values at Winnetka – One District Challenges Its Traditions, Practices, and Philosophical Assumptions, Sandy Karaganis – Editor. New Directions for School Leadership Series.Jossey-Bass Publishers: San Francisco (1998).
    • “The Winnetka Public Schools: Traditions, Transitions, Transformation” by Rebecca van der Bogert (2002)
    • The Winnetka Historical Society www.winnetkahistory.org
    • Pioneer Past Still Present in Winnetka Schools by Bean Carroll in WHS Gazette: (2000).
    • Winnetka Public Schools: 150 Years - A Brief Chronology in Recognition of District 36 150th.
    • How Progressive Education Came to Winnetka by Susan Whitcomb in WHS Gazette (2009).
    • Learners (Spring 2003, June 2009 issues). The Superintendents of The Winnetka Public Schools – A Listing (1893-Present).

    rev. 4-04-14

    District 36 is located in Cook County, Illinois, in the village of Winnetka, 16 miles north of Chicago. For decades, The Winnetka Public Schools have led the nation in progressive education and served as a model for educators who value the development of the whole child.

    All of the District's schools have been included on the Illinois State Honor Roll for Academic Excellence since 2005, Academic Excellence Awards recognize schools that have sustained very high academic performance over at least three years. In these elementary schools, at least 90% of students met or exceeded state standards both in reading and in mathematics for at least three consecutive years. The District has been awarded both The Bright Red Apple Award and the Bright A+ Award by School Search. These awards are given to less than 10% of the schools in Illinois.

    The District serves approximately 1,560 kindergarten through eighth-grade children in three elementary schools (Crow Island School, Greeley School, and Hubbard Woods School); one fifth/sixth grade center (The Skokie School); and one seventh/eighth grade building (Carleton Washburne School). After students complete Grade 8 in The Winnetka Public Schools, they attend New Trier Township High School. More than 96% of New Trier High School graduates attend college.

    District 36 Borders

    The map below indicates the elementary school (K-4 buildings) of the three elementary buildings of The Winnetka Public Schools:

    • Hubbard Woods School
    • Greeley School
    • Crow Island School

    All students in grades 5-6 attend The Skokie School and all students in grades 7-8 attend Carleton Washburne School.  

    Winnetka District 36 Attendance Boundaries Map

    Approved by the School Board on October 22, 2019

    Please use this mapping tool to check an address for the 2020-2021 School Boundary Assignments.

    Disclaimer: This map is meant only as a guide for The Winnetka Public Schools newly adopted (October 22, 2019) elementary school boundaries. District 36 has made substantial efforts to ensure the accuracy of the information, however, if you need further clarification on your school assignment, please EMAIL our District Registrar, Carolin Huh, with questions.

    This "Beautiful Land"

    The Village of Winnetka stands at the edge of Lake Michigan 16 miles north of Chicago. Named for a Native American word meaning "beautiful land," Winnetka today is home to some 12,400 people who live along its tree-lined streets.

    Nestled in this four-square-mile village are three neighborhood elementary schools: Crow Island School, Greeley School, and Hubbard Woods School. They serve children from kindergarten through grade four. The Skokie School enrolls students in grades five and six, and Carleton Washburne School enrolls students in grades seven and eight.

    Students graduate from The Winnetka Public Schools to join children from nearby towns at New Trier High School.

    A Tradition of Progressive Education

    With a tradition of leadership in progressive public education, The Winnetka Public Schools consider each child to be a whole person who should be developed intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically.

    The District's landmark document, Winnetka, A Community of Learners, declares the schools' primary purpose to be the development of each child's ability to read with comprehension, write and speak effectively, perform mathematical processes with precision, use the scientific method, and act with confidence and self reliance.

    The Story of Our Schools

    A decade before the Village was incorporated in 1869, families in the town made private donations to finance the first public school. Years later, before the first World War, a handful of citizens gathered to discuss starting a private preparatory school like those they had attended in the East. They ended up instead putting their efforts into the public schools.

    "Why don't we make the public schools of our Village so good that we will be proud to send our children to them?" - Citizen Edwin Fetcher, speaking in the early 1900s

    But it was Carleton W. Washburne, the superintendent from 1919 to 1943, who was the architect of "The Winnetka Plan." His innovations - individualized instructions, hands-on learning, and attention to the development of the whole child - are now cornerstones of excellent schools across the country. Educators in Winnetka every day renew and extend this vision.

    Our Elementary Schools

    At the elementary level, The Winnetka Public Schools offer language arts (reading, writing, listening, and speaking), mathematics, science, social studies, art, music, physical education, and Spanish.

    While curriculum goals are set at the District level, each school and each classroom maps its own path to these goals. Walk into a Winnetka school, and you will sense a unique culture. You will see teachers collaborating with other professionals as well as parents.

    Teachers tailor the curriculum to their students, addressing the needs of different individuals with different approaches. Teachers regularly confer with parents, using examples of students' work, test scores, and daily observations to paint a picture of children's progress. Letter grades are phased in at the middle-school level.

    The Resource Center staff in each school expands upon core learning by engaging children in literature and independent research. The Math Lab similarly challenges and supports children in mathematics. In instrumental music, children may take Suzuki string lessons starting in kindergarten or join a District-wide band or orchestra from fifth grade through eighth grade.

    The Washburne-Skokie Campus

    Carleton Washburne School (grades 7 and 8) and The Skokie School (grades 5 and 6) form the Washburne-Skokie Middle School Campus. The two-school-building setting came into existence in August 1998 to accommodate the growing student population and program expansion.

    An interesting history precedes the opening. The Skokie School was the District junior high school beginning in 1920. As the student population grew and educational needs changed, Carleton Washburne School was built in 1969 to house the District's seventh and eighth grades, while The Skokie School housed the fifth and sixth grades. By 1980 the student population declined, allowing the fifth grade students to move to the three elementary buildings and the sixth grade students to become a part of Carleton Washburne School.

    By the late 1990s, the population at Carleton Washburne School increased to 600 students. In response to the growth, the School Board elected to remodel and reopen the south end of The Skokie School to house the sixth grade and to let Carleton Washburne School become a grade 7-8 building. Thus, in August 1998, The Washburne-Skokie Campus began a new era in the District.

    Learning with Meaning

    Integrated learning is one of the hallmarks of The Winnetka Public Schools. A class planning a visit to a prairie, for instance, may hone many skills.

    The children may read fiction about life on the prairies in the 1800s and study the plants and animals that live there today. Once on the prairie with their teacher and parent volunteers, they may draw what they find, plot a course with a compass, calculate the current of a stream, or scatter seeds.

    When they return to school, a few may write letters to local policy makers or stage a play for a younger class. The prairie becomes a springboard for academic learning in the context of stewardship of a precious resource.

    A long standing tradition for all Winnetka students is to spend a day in The Pioneer Room at Crow Island School, a school built in Washburne's day to be "the architectural embodiment of our ideas and ideals." Dressed as pioneers, small groups of third grade students from all three schools experience a day in the life of a pioneer family. Weeks of classroom study culminate in this experience.

    Student Services

    The Winnetka Public Schools strive to meet each child's needs with appropriate services. The District offers a multi-disciplinary team approach in which specialists work with classroom teachers and parents to help children with learning disabilities or other problems. The student services team at each school includes a social worker, speech therapist, and health professional. Students with special needs also may be served through the Northern Suburban Special Education District (NSSED).

    Reaching Out to Others

    The schools support connections among people of different ages and backgrounds.

    Younger classes find "buddies" in older classes. They may do projects together, with each contributing from his own gifts and skills. They may even be in the same classes together, as they are in the summer "Adventures in Learning" Program. Since 1959, children have attended "Adventures" to explore such topics as model rocket building, creative dramatics, and pet care.

    Winnetka children establish bonds with children from other backgrounds through relationships with other Chicago area schools. These links - forged teacher to teacher, classroom to classroom, and child to child - feature joint study and projects as well as more casual interactions.

    Through the use of technology, Winnetka children are becoming more global in their experiences, as they explore relationships through the Internet.

    Organization and Funding of the Schools

    The Winnetka Public Schools, technically known as Cook County, Illinois District 36, employ an administrative team of a Superintendent, Chief Financial Officer, Curriculum Director, Student Services Director, Technology Director, Human Resource Director, five building Principals, and two Assistant Principals.

    District 36 is locally governed by an elected School Board of seven citizens. 85% of the District's $36 million budget comes from local tax dollars. Per-pupil costs and tax rates reflect the community's desire for high quality education within the context of financial realities.

    Striving for Excellence

    Excellent schools and their faculties must engage in continual growth. The curriculum is constantly evaluated at all levels. Faculty members regularly meet in grade levels or as teams to discuss and improve instruction. Teachers participate in Winnetka Teachers Institute staff development programs throughout the year. The District financially supports their continuing education and work toward advanced degrees. Many teachers and administrators publish in scholarly journals, teach college courses, lecture, and lead workshops across the country.

    Today and Beyond

    The aphorism, "It takes as entire village to raise a child," originated in an African village. But it just as easily could have come from Winnetka. The maxim expands upon what Carleton Washburne once called the "exchange of faith" between the school and the community.

    Today, Winnetka's schools embrace the values of the community in fostering the development of whole people who are critical thinkers with compassion, creativity, and a sense of their place in the world. In turn, the community helps the schools realize their shared vision with citizen involvement and public and private financial support.

    The ideal of a "community of learners" informs the philosophy and day-to-day teaching of The Winnetka Public Schools. Committed to excellence through growth and innovation, The Winnetka Public Schools face the next century with eagerness and confidence.