For a period of approximately fourteen years following Highland Park High School's establishment in 1886, classes were held in the rooms over the Brand Brothers paint shop in downtown Highland Park. It has occupied the present site on Vine Avenue since 1900. Over the course of time, however, several additions have been constructed. In 2000, HPHS and its sister school, Deerfield High School underwent a two-year, $75 million renovation and expansion project. HPHS received several new additions and renovations with 130,000 square feet (12,000 m2) renovated and 77,000 square feet (7,200 m2) added. The additions and renovations were designed by Legat Architects and executed by VACALA Construction, Inc.
In 1983, Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot wrote The Good High School: Portraits of Character and Culture, which delved into the culture of American high schools as it related to the development of ethical conduct. Highland Park High School was one of two suburban schools profiled, in the chapter titled Highland Park High School: Hierarchies, Ambition, and Stress. While praising the school for its high academic achievement, Lawrence-Lightfoot noted that ideas like ethics and character were not emphasized as a part of the day-to-day working of the school. This point is brought up in a profile of HPHS alum Stephen Glass in Handbook of Frauds, Scams, and Swindles: Failures of Ethics in Leadership, in which Lawrence-Lightfoot's profile of the school is summed up as:
(Lawrence-Lightfoot) was impressed with the school's stunning academic programs, but noted that values such as character and morality were sometimes little more than brushstrokes against the relentlessness of achievement.
During the 1999–2000 school year, Fox Television crews "invaded" the high school after it was selected by documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler to be the setting for his new reality television series. His intent was to accurately portray the intricacies of the lives of a handful of typical high school students. Two crews covered up to eight students each. From August to June, they shot three weeks out of every month, wherever the "cast" led them. That included their homes, on dates, and to parties. Cutler recalls:
There were plenty of situations where it was necessary to exercise our discretion as grown-ups and human beings, but our principal objective was to observe and tell the truth as much as possible. I think we did that...but you always develop a personal relationship with your subjects. You do try to keep on a certain side of the line.
The end product was American High, the critically acclaimed but poorly rated television series that lasted only four episodes on the Fox Network. The show was subsequently picked up by PBS, and the remaining ten episodes were finally aired. The show went on to win an Emmy Award in 2001 for Outstanding Nonfiction Program.
The school made national news in May 2010 when administrators denied a girls' basketball team's trip to Arizona, ostensibly out of concern for the safety of the students was infringed by the recently passed Arizona SB1070 anti-illegal immigration law. Some parents have responded that the students were being used as political pawns and called it a "knee-jerk reaction". Critics cited further as evidence that the incident was politically motivated the statement by the assistant superintendent that the trip to Arizona would not be "in agreement with the school system's values and beliefs." American Openings, a Tucson-based company has offered to bring the girls to Arizona, all expenses paid, to play in spite of the maneuver. On national TV, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin challenged: “Them are fightin’ words when you say a girl can’t play in the basketball tournament … for political reasons … so we’re going to see about that.” While the team cancelled the trip, it was rescheduled for the girls to go to Disney world for another tournament.
In 2013, Highland Park had an average composite ACT score of 25.2, and graduated 90.5% of its senior class. Highland Park has not made Adequate Yearly Progress on the Prairie State Achievement Examination, a state test part of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Highland Park High School has a number of non native-English speaking students and a relatively diverse student population of 80% white, 15% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 2% African American.
Highland Park competes in the Central Suburban League and is a member of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) which governs most of the sports and competitive activities in the state. Its mascot is the Giants.
The school sponsors interscholastic sports teams for young men and women in basketball, cross country, gymnastics, soccer, swimming & diving, tennis, track & field, volleyball, wrestling and water polo. Young men may also compete in baseball, golf, football, and Scholastic wrestling. Women may compete in softball. While not sponsored by the IHSA, the school also sponsors teams for men and women in lacrosse in addition to an ice hockey team for men. Highland Park also sponsors a joint fencing team with Deerfield High School for men and women.
The following teams have won their respective IHSA sponsored state championship tournament:Cross country (Boys): State Champions (1961–62)
Golf (Boys): State Champions (1939–40, 47–48, 51–52, 52–53, 58–59)
Tennis (Boys): State Champions (1972–73)
Highland Park offers 64 clubs, activities, and intramurals for students. Among these activities are chapters or affiliates of several nationally notable organizations: Amnesty International, Congressional Debate, DECA, FIRST Tech Challenge, Key Club, and Model UN.
The repertoire of the drama department includes two plays and one musical each year in addition to an all original student musical called STUNTS, which is entirely directed, choreographed, produced by students, and a "Short Play" festival, directed entirely by students. Past performances include renditions of Metamorphoses, Cats, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Laramie Project, Les Misérables, Fiddler on the Roof, Urinetown and Beauty and the Beast. During the 2005–2006 and 2011–2012 school years, the play On Stars Not Falling (written by one of Highland Park's acting teachers) was selected to be performed at the Illinois High School Theatre Festival.
Focus on the Arts is a biennial event that brings artists to Highland Park High School to share their passion with its students. Over three days, world-renowned artists come to the high school to showcase their talents and encourage students to explore the arts themselves. The mediums of music, visual arts, dance, creative writing, media and theater are represented. Presentations on sports media, improvisation theater, and creative writing are particularly popular. Students at Highland Park High School program their own schedule so they attend activities they wish to attend. Three regularly scheduled academic classes occur for each day that is missed for Focus events. Focus is funded from a variety of resources including but not limited to grants, private donations, and allowances. All events are free to the students, faculty, staff, and the community at large.
In 2005, Focus celebrated its 20th biennial. In celebration, the Highland Park High School Chorus and Orchestra collaborated with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to perform opera choruses for the opening night celebration, which was conducted by Duain Wolfe, Director of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.
The following competitive teams have won their respective IHSA sponsored state championship tournament:Drama: State Champions (1977–78)
Group Interpretation: State Champions (1979–80)
The following clubs have scored championships in non-IHSA sanctioned events:Congressional Debate: 1st Place Harvard National Congress (2006, 2009)
Wind Symphony: Gold Medal Young Prague International Music Festival (2012)
Each year students at HPHS mobilize to support a charity that they vote to support for all of February. This month-long event is known as "Charity Drive" and is orchestrated by the Charity Drive Committee, one of the subdivisions of the school-wide political Student Senate. Recent charities have included Children's Neuroblastoma, Cancer Foundation (2006), Hope for Huntingtons (2007), CURED (2008), and Foundation for Retinal Research (2009). The school regularly raises more than $100,000, including $247,000 raised in 2008 and $165,000 in 2009. An anonymous benefactor matched the donations of the school in 2008 and 2009.Eric J. Engberg (class of 1959) is a former correspondent for CBS (1976 to 2003)
Stephen Glass (class of 1990) is a former reporter at The New Republic
William Goldman (class of 1948) is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Butch Cassidy and All the President's Men), and author of The Princess Bride.
John M. Grunsfeld is an astronaut at NASA.
David R. Palmer (class of 1959) is a science fiction author.
Mike Resnick (class of 1959) is a science fiction author.
Brian Ross (class of 1966) is a broadcast journalist.
Peter Suber (class of 1969) is Director of the Office for Scholarly Communication at Harvard University and a leader in the movement for open access to research.
Stephen Wizner is a law professor at Yale University.
Rachel Brosnahan (class of 2008) is an actress in the Netflix series House of Cards.
Brett Gelman is an actor and comedian.
Jeff Perry (class of 1973) is an actor who co–founded the Steppenwolf Theater.
Gary Sinise (class of 1974) is an actor.
Jason Brown is a US Olympic figure skater.
Stansfield Turner (class of 1941) was an U.S. Navy Admiral and later CIA Director.
Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright IV (class of 1901) was an Army Lieutenant General. He is a Medal of Honor recipient.
Jerry Wainwright was the school's head boys basketball coach (1978—83). He most recently was the head men's basketball coach at DePaul University.
Jill Stein (class of 1968) is an American physician, activist, and politician affiliated with the Green Party of the United States.