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Chicago Public Schools reports ‘stunning’ single-year enrollment drop, largest in over 2 decades

Officials called the 15,000-student decrease a “crisis” that was largely driven by a significant drop in new families enrolling this fall in preschool programs and elementary school.

Sawyer Elementary School, 5247 S. Spaulding Ave., on the Southwest Side, Thursday morning, Feb. 27, 2020.
Chicago Public Schools saw big drops in the number of students enrolled in elementary schools and pre-K programs.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file

Chicago Public Schools enrollment plummeted by 15,000 students this fall compared to last year, the largest single-year drop in more than two decades, according to records released by the school system Friday.

Officials called the decrease from 355,000 students to 340,000 — a 4% drop — a “crisis” that was largely driven by a significant decline in new families enrolling in preschool programs and elementary schools.

The district released the enrollment figures, calculated on the 20th day of the school year in late September, along with a news release confirming most CPS students will remain in remote learning at the start of the second quarter of the academic year next month, with the “goal” of preschool and special education cluster programs returning to classrooms.

Among the largest drops this school year were 8,000 fewer students at district-run elementary schools — 202,000 to 194,000 — and 6,000 fewer children in pre-K programs — 17,500 to 11,500.

About 44% fewer Black students enrolled in pre-K this year compared to last, CPS said. The decline among Latino students was 29%, while the number of white students dropped 22% and Asian American students dipped 9%.

High school and charter school enrollment remained even at about 74,000 students and 53,000 students, respectively.

“One of the troubling statistics that we see is that far fewer pre-K students are enrolling, and we see the largest impact amongst African American students,” CPS CEO Janice Jackson said at a press conference Friday.

“While we are retaining more of our students, which is something that gives us great pride, the fact that we see fewer kids enrolling is troubling, and we must respond to that in order to preserve the things that matter most to us here in the district,” Jackson said.

Other large districts around the country have faced similar struggles with lower enrollment this fall, likely due to the pandemic. Even with the significant drop at CPS, the district remains the third-largest in the U.S. behind New York City and Los Angeles, staying slightly ahead of Miami-Dade.

“I think it’s important to acknowledge that CPS is not alone in what we’re dealing with right now,” said LaTanya McDade, CPS’ chief education officer. “The drop we’re seeing far outpaces enrollment declines in prior years, so it’s clear this is because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

CPS has lost a whopping 60,000 students in the past seven years, equal to 15% of the district, down from 400,500 in the fall of 2013. The school system had lost about 2.7% of its students three years in a row until the enrollment drop slowed to 1.7% last year.

Racial and ethnic demographics also released by CPS Friday showed that 90 percent of those enrolled in the district are students of color, but there are 5,000 fewer Black students than last year. About 36% of students are Black, while 47% are Hispanic, 11% are white and 4% are Asian American.