Chicago Public Schools Enrollment Nosedives Again

Chicago Public Schools enrollment is down by at least 10,000 students this fall. It has dropped by more than 24,000 since the pandemic began.

Students gather at National Teachers Academy elementary school in the South Loop on the first day of classes for Chicago Public Schools on August 30, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Students gather at National Teachers Academy elementary school in the South Loop on the first day of classes for Chicago Public Schools on August 30, 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago Public Schools Enrollment Nosedives Again

Chicago Public Schools enrollment is down by at least 10,000 students this fall. It has dropped by more than 24,000 since the pandemic began.

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools dropped dramatically again this fall as the pandemic appears to be exacerbating a decade-long slide.

District-run schools are down about 10,000 students compared to last fall, according to a WBEZ analysis of individual school data from CPS’ website. Public charter and alternative schools, which are included in CPS’ total enrollment figure, also appear to be down but it is unclear exactly how much.

Total enrollment is expected to be less than 330,000, according to WBEZ’s estimate of enrollment data from late last week. Last year’s total was 341,000 — down 14,500 from the year before the pandemic began. The school district may no longer be the third largest in the country. Miami-Dade County Public Schools reported about 334,000 students last year.

CPS officially counts fall enrollment on the 20th day of school, which is Monday. The school district could release its count then, but in the past the release is usually delayed.

Over the last decade, CPS’ enrollment has dropped by at least 74,000 students.

In previous years, enrollment declines have been concentrated in Black South and West side neighborhoods. But this year, schools serving all demographic groups saw declines, WBEZ’s analysis shows. The reasons for the declines are many, experts say, including demographic changes in the city as well as the pandemic and the upheaval it caused, which may have motivated some parents to pull their children from the school district.

Fewer city kids

Chicago Public Schools this year continues to grapple with population losses in the city.

Chicago has 200,000 fewer children than 20 years ago. Since 2010, the city has lost about 76,000 children under 18, according to recently released 2020 U.S. Census data.

It has also been well-documented that Black families are leaving the city. Some are seeking safer communities and more opportunity. Some are migrating to Southern states.

For years, there’s been a growing number of majority Black schools with tiny student populations. This year, that number grew by 11%. These schools, which have less than 250 students, include 12 neighborhood high schools. Manley High School on the West Side has just 64 students and Hirsch on the South Side has just 78. Given the way Chicago Public Schools is structured, it is difficult for these schools to provide comprehensive, robust programming, experts say

Latino families helped the school district make up for lost Black families for a number of years, said Dan Anello, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Kids First Chicago. CPS has partnered with Kids First to do a yearly analysis of enrollment and school quality.

Anello said Latino families are not backfilling student enrollment as much any more.

“There’s just not as many babies being born,” he said. “So that is coupled with immigration policies being more restrictive in recent years.”

About half of the schools serving majority Latino students saw significant decreases in student population this year compared to last, according to WBEZ’s analysis. Some of the schools hit the hardest are ones in gentrifying neighborhoods, including Avondale and Pilsen.

At the same time, schools with majority white populations, some of which are in booming neighborhoods like Lincoln Park and Edison Park and overcrowded in recent years, are also seeing dips in enrollment.

Pandemic push

There’s some anecdotal evidence that the pandemic and the way the school district has handled it may be pushing some families to leave CPS.

A group of parents say they are not ready to send their children back into school buildings as the pandemic goes on. Some are homeschooling their children, while others are demanding the school district provide a remote option. Currently, only medically fragile students have a long-term remote option.

Other CPS parents were turned off by the divisive back and forth between CPS and the teachers union and by the lack of clear answers coming from the district about its COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Meanwhile, Catholic schools and some independent schools are seeing enrollment increases.

The Archdiocese of Chicago says school enrollment is up by about 6.5% this year, a figure that is preliminary as the tally isn’t complete. This comes after decades of enrollment declines. Last year, enrollment was about 42,000 students across its 154 elementary schools and three high schools.

Last year, Catholic schools were popular because they stayed with in-person instruction while CPS was remote. It appears some parents are staying and new ones have enrolled.

“We think that’s happening because people appreciate what we’re offering in our schools,” said Greg Richmond, the new superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools. “Our schools have …. that experience of offering safe in-person instruction for the past year. We think that’s appealing to a lot of families.”

Archdiocese school school officials say they don’t know how many of their new students come from CPS. But at the school level, a few principals tell WBEZ a portion of their new students come from city schools.

For example, St. Matthias Elementary School near Lincoln square welcomed 52 new families this year. That included 23 students from CPS. And last year, there were 68 new students, including 29 from CPS, according to Katie Carden, St Matthias’ principal. She said after seeing enrollment drop a few years back, her school now has a waitlist in multiple grades.

This year Archdiocese-run schools have scaled back their COVID-19 safety rules, as CPS has, Richmond said. Schools don’t take student’s temperature at the door any more and they don’t have in-school testing like CPS will eventually have at all schools.

Looking for students

Chicago Public School officials are still trying to figure out where some of their students have gone.

CPS officials last year attributed a 14,500 student enrollment drop largely to parents choosing not to enroll their children in preschool and kindergarten. At the time, the speculation was that parents didn’t want their young children in front of a screen doing remote learning. Others were keeping the kids in daycare so they could work.

CPS has not provided grade level enrollment so the state of enrollment in the early grades this year isn’t clear. But at the board of education meeting this week, member Luisiana Meléndez asked why preschoolers haven’t returned to city schools. Board members have been given an early look at enrollment data.

“What is being done specifically for those students?” Meléndez asked. “Are they in community- based organizations close to home? Have they left the district? It is important to pay attention to those students because what happens in early years is important.”

Interim Chief Education Officer Maurice Swinney said the school district is calling the parents of children who haven’t turned up. Similarly, district officials are reaching out to older children who were not engaged last year during remote learning and have not returned to buildings.

Last year, the school district identified some 18,000 students who they said were highly disengaged based on their attendance, grades and other risk factors. Schools and community-based organizations spent the summer calling and reaching out to these students.

School district officials said this week that thousands of these students still have not returned. They are continuing to call and try to visit them to find out where they are.

Sarah Karp and Adriana Cardona-Maguigad cover education for WBEZ. Follow them on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter and @AdrianaCardMag.