Amid a pandemic and all remote learning, Chicago Public Schools saw its biggest decline in student enrollment in two decades.
Enrollment is down by about 4% or about 14,500 fewer students this year compared to last year, according to school district figures released Friday.
This accelerates a downward trend over the last nine years. Just a decade ago, the school system had nearly 403,000 students. This year, the official enrollment count is at 340,658.
But Chicago’s enrollment loss is not unique. This year, most big city school districts have seen enrollment drops of between 3% and 5%, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools.
In Chicago and many other school districts across the nation, much of the drop is due to preschoolers and kindergarteners deciding not to enroll. Fifty-seven percent of the drop in enrollment compared to last year is among these young students, according to CPS. Forty-one percent of the enrollment drop is in pre-K alone.
The enrollment announcement comes as the news surfaces that the school district plans to resume in-person learning in November for preschool students and some students with disabilities. A final decision will be made closer to Nov. 9, the start of the second quarter, CPS said. The plan is for all other students to continue remote learning, with the possibility of additional grades resuming in-person learning as early as January.
Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said she is deeply concerned about thousands of four- and five-year-old children sitting out of school for months.
“We need our pre-K and kindergarten students in school and learning and preparing,” McDade said. “These are the foundational years.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said earlier this week that among the factors she was considering when looking at reopening school for in-person learning is that many young children and students with disabilities are not showing up for school at all.
“We have got to make decisions that maximize the opportunities for everyone, but particularly those students who I think are most vulnerable and are having the most challenges in a remote learning environment,” Lightfoot said.
But officials said they are not worried about the drop in enrollment hurting the school district financially. Some federal funding is tied to the number of low-income students, but it represents only about 10% of the district’s overall budget.
State money isn’t expected to decline because only increases in state funding are tied to enrollment and attendance and there is no jump in state funding this year.
“All hands on deck” strategy
In a change from past years, high school enrollment is relatively stable, with some neighborhood high schools that have been spiraling downward seeing small upticks.
But still there are 19 high schools that have less than 250 students, including four with fewer than 100 students. These are not only expensive to maintain, but they also struggle to offer robust programming for students.
McDade said the school district is providing extra support to these schools.
She also said the school district is working with elementary schools that saw especially big drops in students. A quarter of the school district’s 477 elementary schools had enrollment declines of 10% of more.
There are five community areas experiencing a more than 10% drop in elementary school students. They include West Garfield Park on the West Side and McKinley Park on the Southwest Side.
To help these schools try to shore up enrollment and attendance, Chicago Public Schools adopted a strategy that they call “all hands on deck” in which Safe Passage workers are making calls and security guards are doing home visits to try to get students enrolled.
Casserly said he is seeing similar efforts across the country.
“We’re trying to figure out exactly what the situation is, and what it is we can do about it,” he said. “A number of big city school districts have put in place outreach strategies to try to figure out where the kids are, and to bring them back if they aren’t otherwise enrolled.”
Casserly said the biggest concern is that missing students will experience learning loss.
But others say the bigger issue is the pandemic itself.
“The pandemic is causing all kinds of ripple effects on everything, schooling being one of them,” said Amanda Moreno, an associate professor at Erikson Institute, an early childhood, a graduate school in childhood development.
She said schools need to realize that even those in remote learning will need extra support when they return to in-person school.