CPS enrollment drops, continuing decadelong slide

The steady drop to 321,000 students means CPS could lose its title as the third-largest district to Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.

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Parents and students arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School, 2908 W. Washington Blvd. in East Garfield Park, for the first day of school for Chicago Public Schools, Monday morning, Aug. 22, 2022.

Parents and students arrive at Willa Cather Elementary School, 2908 W. Washington Blvd. in East Garfield Park, for the first day of school Aug. 22.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools has fallen for the 11th consecutive year, leaving extremely small schools with dwindling student populations bracing for continued funding cuts.

Long the nation’s third-largest public school system, CPS lost around 9,000 children this year, bringing the district total to about 321,000 pre-K to 12th-grade students, according to preliminary data published on the CPS website this month. This data includes both district-run and charter schools. 

Chicago has lost more than 82,000 public school students in the last decade, including a decline of about 3% in each of the last seven years. The steady drop means CPS could lose its title as the third-largest district to Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, which saw its enrollment increase to 325,000.

The drop in Chicago, though significant, is not as steep as the 15,000-student decline some experts had predicted as the high range of what CPS could lose this fall.

But it’s still painful for many schools, which are primarily funded on a per-pupil basis. One school in Brighton Park on the Southwest Side that saw declining enrollment last year had to forgo an assistant principal this year. Another school always had two kindergarten classes, but this year the budget and enrollment couldn’t support two classes, said Patrick Brosnan, executive director of the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

“The population makes it very complicated to program the school, and then the funding just makes it almost impossible,” Brosnan said. “So ultimately you have students that are losing out on a high-quality education.”

Student demographics appear largely unchanged at CPS this year. There has been a slight decrease in the share of Black children and a tiny increase in the share of white students, but Black and Hispanic students still make up over 82% of enrollment. Hispanic students are the largest population — 46.5% of the district.

CPS has not released its official enrollment figures, tallied on the 20th day of school each year. That milestone passed on Monday, but officials would not confirm the preliminary figures this week, saying the district’s data team is still finalizing and analyzing the records. In the past, CPS has released its official tally weeks after the 20th day in October. 

“The Sun-Times/WBEZ figure regarding district preliminary enrollment data is not representative of the 20th day enrollment population,” CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus stated, adding that CPS only begins its analysis of student enrollment after the 20th day has passed because enrollment shifts during the first few weeks of school.

“Given this [20th day] enrollment file serves as the basis for our annual enrollment counts and is utilized in many ways, it’s essential that we spend the time ensuring the district’s and each school’s final enrollment number is as accurate as possible,” she said.

The preliminary enrollment figures pulled on the 20th day by the Sun-Times and WBEZ come from a tally of individual school enrollment listed on the CPS website, which is regularly updated. And the CPS 20th day enrollment is also publicly available on the city of Chicago’s data portal. 

After declines of about 10,000 kids for several years, CPS saw its sharpest decline early in the pandemic, losing 15,000 students in the 2020-21 school year. Since then, the district has pursued students who disengaged or lost touch with their schools.

But low birth rates, a decrease in immigration and families leaving the city have prevented enrollment from bouncing back, experts say. Indicative of the decline, many schools are seeing kindergarten classes that are much smaller than their upper grades. In some cases eighth-grade cohorts of 130-plus students share a building with 80-student kindergarten cohorts.

The population loss is especially acute at high schools. Some 23 district-run schools now have fewer than 300 students, up from 21 last year. Douglass Academy in Austin has only 34 kids, and Hirsch High School in Grand Crossing enrolls 99 students. Because about half a school’s budget is distributed on a per-pupil basis, these schools struggle to provide a full array of classes and extracurricular activities.

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez has said he will soon announce a plan to establish “neighborhood hub” high schools. It’s unclear what exactly that entails or what that means for the future of these smaller high schools. There’s a moratorium on school closings until January 2025.

An increasing number of elementary schools are facing dwindling enrollment. Seventy district-run elementary schools saw a 10 percentage point drop or more in student enrollment in just one year. A total of 28 district-run schools have less than 200 students. Elementary schools serving predominantly Black students in West Side communities and schools serving predominantly Latino students on the Southwest Side have seen their enrollments drop the most, a Sun-Times/WBEZ analysis shows. 

The district’s enrollment decline does not translate into a significant or direct reduction in state or local revenue. But CPS has a set amount of resources to work with, and its student-based budgeting formula essentially penalizes schools with low enrollment. That leaves questions about how the district expects to stretch resources among its 500-plus buildings.

Elementary school principals in Brighton Park, for example, are worried about what their enrollment losses — about 7% since last year — mean for their future budgets, Brosnan said.

“It’s been a very, very stable decline,” he said.

Some like smaller schools

But while budgeting a small school may be complicated, some parents like the environment.

Samantha Taylor’s daughter goes to Beidler Elementary in East Garfield Park. Beidler only has about 260 students, down about 45 students since last year. But she said the classes all have more than 20 kids, and she said the school doesn’t feel underenrolled. The smaller student population allows students to have a close connection with teachers and the principal, she said.

“We excel,” Taylor said. “The more the merrier, but with the number of students that we have, we can provide the attention, and the students get attention that is needed.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates said the decline in enrollment, particularly through the exodus of Black families, comes down to city policies that don’t invest in housing, public transportation and safety in Black communities.

“You are closing the schools through another method — to starve the community of affordable housing, which means you have less children going to the school, which also means you’re sending less money into those schools,” Davis Gates said. “That means less resources.”

Davis Gates said it’s not too late to fund extremely small schools that have been stripped of resources over the years. But she said CPS and city policies have to be changed first.

“If our mayors, including this one, can’t keep Black families from leaving by supporting and funding Black communities and educating Black children, then they have failed Black people,” she said.

Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Sun-Times. Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. 

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