A growing number of Chicago families are leaving the public school system, with increasing numbers moving to the suburbs or out of state, being homeschooled or transferring to private schools, according to enrollment data for this school year released on Wednesday.
These losses aren’t being offset with robust new enrollment, leading to a 3% drop in students this fall. Official enrollment is now 330,411 students. This decrease, which accelerated during the pandemic, continues a decade of declines in which the school district lost nearly 74,000 students. Enrollment is down by about 25,000 just since the pandemic began.
The enrollment declines are most pronounced in elementary schools, which suggests a significantly smaller school district in the years to come. The decreases are evenly spread across racial groups, with Latino, Black and white students all dropping by about 7% since 2019. The Asian student population dropped by about 4%.
Amid the sober enrollment news, school district officials cited touted successful efforts to reengage students who had disconnected during the pandemic. Of the 18,000 students deemed the most disengaged, 79% are either active students or managed to graduate, CPS said.
CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said he is surprised to see how much the school district has shrunk since he left a job as a top CPS official in 2009. Martinez, who just took over last month, did not lay out a specific plan for addressing underenrolled schools. But he says doesn’t like closing schools and that he has experience reviving once-shuttered schools. CPS is prohibited from closing any schools until 2025 under a moratorium that passed as part of the bill creating an elected school board for the city.
Martinez said he needs to examine why so many families are leaving CPS. “What are the offerings right now that we have across our neighborhoods?” he asked in a briefing for reporters on Tuesday. “Do we have a clear standard of quality of our offerings and programs and [if not] how is that contributing to enrollment declines across some of these neighborhoods?”
The Pilsen-Little Village neighborhood saw the largest enrollment decline this year. That area is experiencing gentrification, as well as the effects of fewer Latino families coming to the city. The Lincoln Park area also had a significant drop in students enrolled.
Martinez said he also wants to get a better understanding of whether the uncertainty of pandemic led some families to abandon the school district. He said he wonders whether those students can be lured back.
About 31,500 students left CPS before graduation, said Sara Kempner, executive director of enterprise data strategy for CPS. This number includes dropouts but that only accounts for about 2,000 students. Some 15% more students left this year compared to last year.
“What we noticed this year is a significant increase, even higher than pre-pandemic, in the number of students that are transferring outside of Chicago completely,” Kempner said. “So this may be students who are transferring to the suburbs, transferring further out in Illinois — Rockford, Champaign — or maybe leaving the state of Illinois entirely.”
Some 17,900 students transferred out of Chicago this year, up from 15,560 in 2019. That’s a 15% jump. There also were substantial increases in the number of students moving to private schools or being homeschooled, according to the school district. Since 2019, CPS data shows a 197% increase in the number of students being homeschooled (1,197 students total) and a 25% increase in students transferring to Chicago non-public schools (3,129 students).
In addition, more than 3,400 students were classified as “Did Not Arrive.” The school district uses this term for students who are not considered dropouts, but whose whereabouts are unknown. This is more than double the number of students marked as “Did Not Arrive” in 2019.
Since the official count was taken last month, district officials say they learned what happened to about 1,000 of those students.
Martinez said he has instructed schools to keep looking for the unaccounted for children. “We want to make sure that these are children who are not falling through the cracks, he said.
Kempner pointed out an uptick in new students enrolling in the district compared to last year, though it was not enough to offset the numbers of students who left.
Last year, in the 2020-21 school year, preschool students saw the biggest drop among all grade levels, with only about 11,500 enrolled. That’s down from more than 17,500 the previous year. Officials speculated that parents of preschool students were rejecting remote learning for their young children or put them in daycare so they could work. This year, preschool enrollment increased to 15,400.
The number of students in CPS high schools also was consistent from 2019 through this year. But the decrease in elementary school students will eventually catch up to the high schools, Martinez noted.
The racial makeup of the school district stayed the same this year, with 46.6% Latino students; 36% Black students; 10.8% white students and 4.4% Asian students.
This story has been updated to include a more comprehensive preschool enrollment figure.