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A 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.

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 is home to some 12,400 people who live along its tree-lined streets.

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.

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.

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