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Chicago Public Schools Enrollment Drops Again

Updated 2:39 p.m. CT

Chicago Public Schools’ official enrollment is down again, this year by more than 6,000 students to a low of 355,156.

Over the past three years the school district has lost about 10,000 students a year, making this year’s decrease an improvement over year’s past. But it is part of a downward trend that began in 2002 when enrollment was nearly 439,000.

Chicago’s school district maintains its place as the third largest in the nation, but only because Miami-Dade’s student population also declined this year.

Despite the larger story of population loss, there are 161 schools that saw enrollment growth this year. Those schools received an extra $13.7 million to accommodate the extra students.

The school that lost the most students this year has a unique story. Ogden Elementary on the Near North Side, a school with mostly white, Asian and affluent students, merged with Jenner, a school of mostly black, low-income students. Then, in the midst of this merger, its principal was removed for alleged wrongdoing. Enrollment at Ogden dropped by 232 students.

But most other schools with declining enrollment are located in neighborhoods that are losing population and where schools are competing for students. Unlike in previous years, these schools will not lose funding this year, though the new enrollment numbers will impact their budgets for next school year.

The latest enrollment numbers come right after the Chicago Teachers Union tried unsuccessfully to secure a school closing moratorium in its latest contract. The union leadership agreed to a tentative agreement without the moratorium with the school district last week. Teachers will vote on the contract next week. In 2013, the school district closed 50 schools that were severely underenrolled.

CTU officials said the school district wanted the union to sign onto a process for closing schools. But the union is dead set against school closings so no agreement was reached. 

CTU President Jesse Sharkey said many of the wins in the teachers contract are designed to bolster struggling schools, which are the very ones the school district might be thinking of closing.

“One of the ways we felt strongly about the equity provisions in this contract was that it helped address what we view as a kind of death spiral, a declining spiral in which they lose enrollment, they lose resources and then they don’t have money for programs or supports that would allow them to rebuild their enrollments,” Sharkey said.

With the right investments, he said, these schools could be the anchors they once were in their communities.

The continued decrease in enrollment will reignite questions about whether the school district should close schools. After the mass closings in 2013, CPS agreed to a five-year moratorium on closings. After that lifted in 2018, it began phasing out four Englewood High schools. A new school to replace the four opened this fall. This is a model Schools CEO Janice Jackson has expressed interest in replicating.

The new data shows several high schools dealing with critically low enrollment, as in the past, but also a growing number of elementary schools.

Twenty-five high schools have less than 300 students, including three South and West side schools — Manley, Douglas and Hirsch — that currently have fewer than 100. One of the high schools that saw a dramatic decrease in students and is now below 300 students is Al Raby in Garfield Park. Jackson served as the founding principal of this school when it opened in 2004.

Five of the high schools with less than 300 students serve majority Latino populations and the rest serve mostly black students.

Another interesting development is several neighborhood high schools that still have healthy enrollments are seeing declines that could spell future trouble. For example, Kelly High School on the Southwest Side has nearly 1,800 students, but it is down 140 from last year. Meanwhile, Noble-Mansueto High School, a charter high school only about four miles away, was allowed to enroll 235 more students.

Among elementary schools, 58 have less than 250 students. That compares to 42 last year. (This includes charter schools, but does not include alternative schools or schools that serve special education students.)

Ten of the elementary schools with low enrollment primarily serve Latino students, while the rest serve majority black students.

CPS cites demographic trends, such as declining birthrates and immigration trends, to help explain the enrollment declines.

The neighborhoods whose schools have lost the most students are West Garfield Park on the West Side; Avalon Park on the South Side; Morgan Park on the Far South Side; South Lawndale and North Lawndale on the West Side.

Activists worry about these schools at a time when there is no school closing moratorium.

“I think it is very scary,” said Jitu Brown, a long time local and national activist against school closings and school privatization. “They starved these traditional high schools and now you have these huge buildings with 100 students in them.”

Brown held a press conference earlier this week in front of Harper High School, which is one of the four Englewood schools being phased out.

He and a group of students and community members want a meeting with Mayor Lori Lightfoot to request that Harper stay open. Brown said Harper and dozens of other low-enrollment schools across the city could be revived with investment.

Brown brought a poster that listed classes in the selective Walter Payton High School, the North Side’s Amundsen High School and Harper High School. Payton and Amundsen have and many more classes and far more students than Harper.

Rather than canceling classes at Amundsen as it was losing population, the school was given an International Baccalaureate program and other investments. And after years of losing enrollment, over the past three years it has seen an increase in students with almost 100 more this year.

Neither Mayor Lori Lightfoot nor CEO Jackson have not laid out a comprehensive plan for dealing with low-enrollment schools.

Jackson has said that she won’t do any mass closings, like the 50 elementary schools closed in 2013.

But she also has argued that when enrollment drops too low, the school cannot offer a robust curriculum. She has said it is unfair to keep students in these schools. Jackson has defended the replacing of Harper and three other nearby high schools with the state-of-the-art school that opened this fall and suggested it could be a model in other neighborhoods.

However, it appears that schools could be safe this year. The school district says it will only close district-run schools that have zero enrollment or if the closure is being requested by a principal, parents or community members, according to draft school action guidelines published on Sept. 30 to comply with state law.

Charter schools can be closed for poor achievement or money management, according to the guidelines.

The school district must announce school closings by Dec. 1.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that CPS' enrollment is down by more than 6,000 students this year, not 5,500.

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