Chicago’s steep enrollment losses hit high-poverty schools hardest

This fall’s enrollment drop in Chicago’s public schools — the sharpest in two decades — hit Bret Harte Elementary particularly hard. 

The school, near the wealthy University of Chicago but serving primarily low-income South Side students, lost about 50 students. For a small school, with enrollment hovering at about 330 students in recent years, it was a painful 15% drop. Right before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Harte had revived its fundraising group to help hire a music teacher and plug other program holes. Now, the school could face a fresh financial setback. 

A Chalkbeat analysis of this fall’s enrollment data shows that the schools with the most marked declines were often the ones least able to handle a potential financial hit from an enrollment dip. Many were small neighborhood elementary schools with 350 students or fewer, such as Harte, which are already in a precarious position in a school district that bases annual school budgets largely on the number of students enrolled. 

The analysis also showed: 

  • steeper-than-average enrollment losses in the district’s highest-poverty schools
  • sharp declines in the earlier grades for special education students and English language learners
  • deeper losses in neighborhoods on the city’s West and Northwest sides  
  • more stable high school enrollment, with gains in the junior and senior year

The possible financial fallout from enrollment declines already has spurred anxiety on some campuses in the district, which has grappled with shrinking enrollment for years. A group of Local School Councils, including Harte’s, wrote recently to district leaders to implore them to suspend their student-based budgeting formula this coming spring — a formula that, even before the pandemic, was under review by a commission convened by the mayor. They said they were hopeful that some of the missing students will come back next fall, and concerned about how they would serve students who return, with potentially higher needs, on tight budgets. 

“Students, who are already dealing with multiple disruptions and trauma caused by this pandemic, will face returning to a shell of the school they left in the spring of 2020,” they wrote. “It is likely they will need more supports, not less.”

In a statement to Chalkbeat, the district said it is considering the effects of the pandemic as it “evaluates options” for next school year’s budgets.

How many of the families who left the school district will come back is an open question. There’s no district data tracking where students went, only anecdotal reports about families who have been displaced by the pandemic or chose to homeschool or enrolled in private schools. In preschool and kindergarten, where the district saw large drops in enrollment, some families might have opted to skip it altogether because neither is mandatory in Illinois. 

Uneven enrollment losses

Overall, the district’s enrollment this fall dropped by 4%, to just more than 340,600 students. Earlier this month when officials released the data, they zeroed in on a 34% drop in pre-kindergarten to make a case for bringing back preschoolers before most other students. For Black students, the decline in preschool enrollment was especially pronounced this year, with a drop of almost 45%.

But other grades were not spared: Kindergarten and third grade also experienced steep declines, at almost 9% and 8% compared to the previous year respectively. It’s unclear why third grade would see a much sharper decline than first and second. Other large urban districts across the country have reported significant enrollment declines in the early grades as well.

At Harte, in fact, pre-kindergarten numbers remained unchanged while other grades saw drops. Aiko Kojima Hibino, a community representative on the school’s local council, said it’s not clear why enrollment shrunk after several years of stable student numbers. Officials know the pandemic pushed some of the school’s families, more than three-quarters of whom lived in poverty last school year, to leave the city. 

Even before the outbreak, the school had a sizable wish list, Hibino said: It offered no music classes, and the gym and arts teachers worked part time. Last fall, Hibino and other supporters revived a Friends of Bret Harte group to raise money for those programs. Now, Hibino worries, the needs will grow deeper. 

“Because the school is so small, 50 students is a big number for us,” said Hibino. “It’s really hard.”  

Districtwide, enrollment declines also were marked among groups whose parents have reported difficulties with remote learning, such as special education and English language learners, the analysis showed. Enrollment dropped dramatically among the youngest students in programs for students learning English, including a 65% drop for 4 year olds and a 28% drop in kindergarten.

Schools where more than 80% of students qualified for subsidized lunch last year saw the steepest losses on average. For some, this fall accelerated a longer-standing trend of bleeding students.

But the district schools with the lowest poverty levels as a group also saw significant enrollment declines, perhaps because parents had more options if they were dissatisfied with remote learning. For those schools, this fall’s dip reversed a trend of gaining enrollment in recent years. 

Overall, there are now about 75 schools in the city that have lost more than 20% of their enrollment over the past three years and now have fewer than 350 students. When enrollment starts to fall below this threshold, experts have said, schools can enter a troubling cycle: Fewer students mean cuts to staff and programs that could attract more students. 

Elaine Allensworth with the Consortium on Chicago School Research said though she has not studied the data, it makes sense that high-poverty schools would be harder hit by enrollment losses. Families living in poverty face steeper hurdles to participating in remote learning because of uneven access to computers and the internet. Some parents also might not be able to supervise learning at home. 

Crucially, small schools also might not have the staff to do the intensive outreach to families that the district has said helped reel in many missing students.

In keeping with previous years, enrollment stayed more stable at the high school level, with the district’s junior and senior classes actually gaining students — a trend that reflects Chicago’s success in decreasing the number of upperclassmen who drop out of high school. Some of the city’s alternative high schools stood out in making notable enrollment gains, despite the pandemic. Large, highly ranked high schools, such as Amundsen and Taft, grew their student bodies as well.

Anxiety about financial fallout

So are the deeper-than-usual enrollment losses just a temporary blip? Will the families who opted for childcare, homeschooling or private schools come back next fall — or will some of them decide against another transition? Will the losses, coupled with larger budget woes, force Chicago to dump its school funding formula and come up with a new way of allocating money? 

In school communities, there is a growing concern that the enrollment declines could have a devastating impact on budgets if the district doesn’t change its approach, at least temporarily.

At New Field Elementary in Rogers Park, enrollment is down roughly 7% from last year’s 615 students instead of a more modest projected decrease. Annie Gill-Bloyer, chair of its school council, said a pair of pandemic pressures appear to be at work. 

The economic fallout from the outbreak has pushed families to “double up” with relatives or friends in other parts of the city or leave Chicago altogether. Other parents chose to homeschool or send their children to private school because they did not think remote learning was working for them. Some of them have said they would come back next fall. 

The enrollment loss this fall translates into more than $100,000 in per-pupil funding, raising the specter of lost arts programs or higher class sizes. 

“Next fall we could have a significant drop in funding to serve more students,” said Gill-Bloyer. “It’s the worst of both worlds.”

New Field’s LSC and six others that wrote to district leaders said the unprecedented pandemic moment calls for an uncommon approach to budgeting next spring. They say they worry about having to lay off teachers and gut programs — and then scramble to reverse these cuts if students return in the fall of 2021. They point to Shields Elementary, on the Southwest Side, where a loss of 115 students this fall would mean $500,000 in lost district funding. At Far South Side’s Haley Elementary, down almost 100 students, the budget could dip by $400,000 if officials don’t intervene. 

“A unique global pandemic should not impact our schools’ abilities to serve our students in the future, many of whom have indicated they will re-enroll in SY22,” the letter said, urging district leaders to turn the disruption into an opportunity to rethink how they allocate money to schools permanently. 

It’s likely the district’s enrollment will at least partially bounce back post-pandemic, said Allensworth. But she worries about the repercussions for students who missed out on preschool or kindergarten. 

“We do know those are really critical years,” she said.