The number of students enrolled in Chicago Public Schools continued to decline this fall, with the biggest drops in elementary schools, but the losses are less than the dramatic declines during the height of the pandemic.
The drop also was not as steep as the worst case scenario figure of 15,000 some researchers had predicted.
The official 20th-day enrollment figure, announced Wednesday, stands at 322,106 students — about 8,300 less than last year. This drops Chicago, long the nation’s third-largest school district, behind Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which enrolls 25,000 students.
Student enrollment in Chicago has dropped by about 81,000 students over the last decade.
Schools chief Pedro Martinez put a positive spin on the decline, noting that a 2.5% decrease is smaller than in previous years. Declines in many of the past 11 years have been around 3%. He also noted that high school enrollment remained stable.
Martinez said he plans to take a hard look at grades that registered decreases to see if there is a way to bolster them.
“Our enrollment numbers reflect many changes, including declining birth rates,” Martinez said at a Chicago Board of Education meeting this week. “But they also present us with an opportunity to review our practices and to ensure that we’re providing the best programming and services to our students.”
One reason the decline is less than in previous years is that the school district is making up for some ground lost during the pandemic. School district officials touted a 6% rise in preschool enrollment over last year. However, there are still 1,000 fewer preschool students than in the 2019-2020 school year.
Overall, the number of new students arriving is just under last year’s total at 42,230, down from 43,535.
In addition, fewer students left the school district last year to be homeschooled or to go to private schools. However, those numbers are higher than the year before the pandemic. Fewer students also transferred to suburban school districts and out of state.
The school district also is seeing an increase in students identified as low-income, homeless and with special needs. That is likely due to students being in person and so school staff can better understand their situation and needs, said Sara Kempner, executive director of enterprise data strategy for CPS.
Kempner noted the drop in elementary school students, while high school enrollment is stable. Kindergarten enrollment is down by 3% since last year and down by 14% since the 2020 school year.
Board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland said elementary school enrollment is a predictor for the future.
“Well, certainly I think that’s troubling, right?” she asked at the board meeting. “Because … that’s our pipeline to future students. That’s our pipeline to future high school students.”
Martinez noted there are particularly big declines in the fifth and seventh grades compared to last year.
“I do wonder, and it’s a wondering, [what] parents think about when children get close to that age of seventh and eighth grade, how they start thinking about: Do I stay in Chicago with a complicated system of high schools or do I move to a suburb, which usually only has one high school makes my choice easy,” he said.
Martinez said he wants to look at the high school admissions policy and improve neighborhood high schools so families see them as good options.