In Chicago, shrinking majority Latino schools pose a key enrollment challenge

A child wearing a blue shirt is in front of a girl wearing a white flamingo shirt, a pink bow, and a pink surgical mask, arms outstretched in a class hallway. The girl behind her is wearing a pink sweater with a silver heart on it.
Students pretend to be airplanes as they walk to the playground at Carole Robertson Center for Learning in Little Village last spring. Chicago Public Schools saw some of its steepest enrollment losses in that neighborhood during the pandemic. (Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

Hammond Elementary, a predominantly Latino school in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, lost almost 30% of its enrollment during the pandemic, shrinking to about 250 students from a peak of more than 500 back in the mid-2010s. 

In nearby Pilsen, another historically Latino neighborhood on the Lower West Side, Ruiz Elementary lost a quarter of its student body in two years. 

Pilsen and Little Village, which grappled with overcrowded schools less than a decade ago, had some of the city’s steepest enrollment losses during the COVID outbreak — both down almost a fifth of their elementary students, compared with an almost 10% decrease districtwide

These two communities are part of a larger trend of declining enrollment at majority Latino neighborhood elementary schools, which began well before the pandemic but picked up speed in the past two years. During that time, Latino enrollment losses for the first time outpaced Black student departures, which in the years leading up to the outbreak had been much sharper.

Gentrification, demographic shifts, and the pandemic have all fed into the trend, which has played out differently across neighborhoods and is not fully understood. Charter and parochial schools fared better during the recent upheaval. 

In any case, the loss of Latino students — who make up almost half of the district’s student body — is a central challenge looming for the city and for Pedro Martinez, who earlier this fall became Chicago’s first permanent Latino schools chief

In a district where enrollment largely determines school budgets, these losses threaten to thrust more campuses into a vicious cycle of losing resources, trimming programs and staff, then turning off more families and triggering further cuts. It could curtail the district’s state funding and affect communities where bustling schools are a vital focal point.  

These Latino enrollment losses echo the hollowing out of majority Black schools on the South and West Sides that culminated in unpopular and disruptive campus closures under former Mayor Rahm Emanuel — but they are happening on fast forward.

“This might be an avertable crisis,” said Denali Dasgupta, director of data strategies at the nonprofit Thrive Chicago. “The fallout when we take a crisis management approach to this issue is really damaging to families and communities.”

Amid a moratorium on school closures until 2025, Martinez has vowed to better understand the drivers of student losses at the neighborhood and campus level. 

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Martinez, who effortlessly toggles between English and Spanish in his press conferences, has noted the district is up against powerful demographic forces — declining birth rates and slowing immigration that have turned declining enrollment into a formidable hurdle for districts across the country. However, he has also said that more equitable program offerings across neighborhoods and a more trusting, genuine relationship between the district and its families could hold a key to stemming some of the losses. 

The story of Orozco Academy shows that digging down to the campus level reveals complexities beyond the larger trends. 

‘Surreal’ enrollment losses 

Patricia Zarate’s loyalty to Orozco, an elementary school in Pilsen, runs deep: Her oldest graduated from the school, and two younger children attend. She serves on the parent advisory council and volunteers as a parent mentor. 

But she has seen other parents leave the school, where enrollment shrank by 40% in the past two years alone. 

Zarate says the families of some of her children’s classmates and friends left Pilsen for neighborhoods to the south and for the suburbs. They went in search of more affordable housing and places they saw as calmer and safer amid an uptick in gun violence​​ in the Southwest Side neighborhoods not far from her school. 

But district changes in the years before the pandemic played a role as well: Cooper Deal Language Academy, a once K-through-5 “sister” school that had seen its own enrollment decrease since the mid-2010s, phased in the middle grades, cutting off a supply of older students. 

Meanwhile, Orozco became a gifted magnet. Zarate’s children all tested into that program, but their cousins had to find a different elementary school. The pandemic, which blocked parent access to the school building, crimped efforts to promote the school’s gifted offerings.         

“We are a magnet school now, but many people outside the neighborhood don’t know about us,” Zarate said. 

The pandemic years took a toll on enrollment across Pilsen and Little Village, where a slew of elementary schools lost a fifth or more of their enrollments. But declines were also substantial in neighboring areas such as Brighton Park and McKinley Park. The outbreak accelerated a pre-pandemic trend: Almost all of the several dozen elementary schools with the biggest enrollment drops since a 2014-2015 peak are majority Latino campuses on the West and Southwest sides.

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High schools, which had seen more modest enrollment losses pre-pandemic, generally stayed relatively steady during the past two years. 

Declining enrollment in Chicago has been seen as a small school problem in recent years, as numerous majority Black schools saw student rolls shrink to a point when it became harder for student-based budgets to support a rich slate of classes, extracurriculars, and other services. Indeed, during the pandemic, small high schools serving mostly Black, low-income students, saw some of the most dramatic losses: Bronzeville High on the South Side lost almost half of its enrollment while Austin College and Career Academy, on the West Side, lost more than a third.

But what’s striking about these more recent losses in predominantly Latino schools is that they haven’t spared larger schools, such as Gary Elementary, another Little Village school that lost a fifth of its students in two years and now serves about 800 students. And although the district has been hit hardest in the earliest grades, older grades also saw losses: Madero Middle School in Little Village, for example, shrunk by almost a fifth.  

Daniel Anello, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Kids First Chicago, said the Pilsen and Little Village declines are “surreal to look at,” as the exodus of Black students and families has long dominated the Chicago enrollment conversation. And he said different factors appear to be putting pressure on enrollment at majority Latino schools in very different neighborhoods. 

There’s Pilsen, where gentrification and its impact on local schools has been much publicized. But, Anello said, “You also have places like Little Village where gentrification is not the main driver, and still we see huge drops in the number of elementary school students in CPS.”

A tale of two neighborhoods

In Pilsen, gentrification is undoubtedly a culprit. Census data shows the neighborhood is skewing older and whiter, with fewer school-age residents. According to data compiled by analyst Rob Paral, the Lower West Side, which includes Pilsen, has seen a 12 percentage point dip in the share of Latino residents between 2010 and 2020 while more white residents moved in. The portion of residents living below the poverty line shrank by 10 percentage points. Those numbers remained much more stable in Little Village. 

Across the city, even as the overall population has increased in the decade leading up to the pandemic, the number of children has dipped markedly. Other factors are conspiring to put pressure on enrollment as well, notes Eréndira Rendón of the nonprofit Resurrection Project in Pilsen: Latino birth rates are falling, and even before the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies, immigrant arrivals were slowing.  

“Immigrants are not coming to Chicago in the high numbers they were coming — and they are not coming to Pilsen or Little Village,” she said. “Latinos in Pilsen tend to be established, long-term residents so they don’t tend to bring over more family members.” 

With the exodus of Latinos to the suburbs and outstate Illinois — many of them edging into the middle class and finding homeownership in traditional Latino enclaves in the city increasingly out of reach — those families might not live in Chicago at all, but rather in nearby Cicero or Aurora. 

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The Resurrection Project, which coordinates the parent mentorship program Zarate, the Orozco mom, is involved in, was part of an effort five years ago to craft a plan for warding off enrollment declines in the neighborhood. The idea was to increase the number of specialty magnet programs to draw students from outside Pilsen’s boundaries. 

But more recently, some residents have voiced concern that new test-in magnet programs such as Orozco’s could cut off access for local bilingual families. They have said the district needs to do more to demystify the application process for immigrant parents.

In nearby Little Village, community leaders such as Ald. Michael Rodriguez say an overall population decline — from more than 90,000 people living in the neighborhood two decades ago to about 70,000 in 2020 — has played a role. Immigration changes, including the Trump administration’s restrictive policies and deportation push, have loomed large. 

But in one of the city’s communities hardest hit by COVID, the pandemic had a major impact that’s yet to be fully quantified or understood. 

Astrid Suarez, the education director of the Little Village-based nonprofit Enlace Chicago, says the organization estimates that up to a quarter of residents are undocumented. They bore the brunt of job loss and other economic fallout but were not eligible for government financial relief. 

Suarez knows many families were displaced, doubling up with relatives in other neighborhoods or outside the city. Remote learning was a profound challenge that severed ties between some families and schools, especially as more stay-at-home mothers had to take on jobs.   

“The economic hardships played a really large role in disconnecting students from their schools,” Suarez said. 

Suarez said the district and city are at an important juncture to rethink public schools in the neighborhood: embracing smaller class sizes instead of cutting educators to adjust for shrinking enrollment, updating aging facilities, and expanding dual language programs that more fully celebrate the neighborhood’s Latino culture. 

To Rodriguez, who represents a large swath of Little Village, early childhood education is key: The district must expand and promote programs for 3- and 4-year-olds to get families through the door early. He pointed to one neighborhood school that started this fall with just a few students in its pre-K program, but worked aggressively to get the word out inside and outside the school and saw pre-K enrollment quadruple.

He said principals have also shared a demand for more pre-care and aftercare options among working parents. Some have voiced concerns about losing staffing after this fall’s enrollment hit. 

At Richard Daley Academy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, where about 90% of students are Latino, principal Kamilah Hampton says the school has redoubled efforts to combat COVID anxiety, vaccine hesitancy, and misinformation. She believes safety concerns are still leading families to keep younger students at home or in private child care settings, with the school pre-kindergarten enrollment still half of what it was pre-pandemic. That’s even though Daley has only had one confirmed COVID case this fall. 

“I truly believe the biggest piece for us has been fear about what the pandemic has brought,” Hampton said. “We have to validate those parents’ fears — and continue to communicate that schools are safe.”

What will Martinez do?  

Like district-run campuses, charter schools in the area tended to see enrollment dips as well, but they were generally less marked than district-run schools. Though some Acero schools on the Southwest Side saw more significant enrollment decreases, the charter network was able to contain pandemic-era losses in that area to about 3%.

Helena Stangle, a spokeswoman for the Acero network, credited a hands-on, tight-knit relationship these schools have cultivated with families and surrounding communities. She said these bonds often involve stepping in to troubleshoot issues that extend beyond learning, such as social service and immigration referrals and support with basic needs — support that became especially crucial during the pandemic. 

She also pointed to the early adoption of school-based vaccine clinics and onsite weekly COVID testing for students and staff. The network transitioned to hybrid learning on April 19, more than a month later than district elementary schools. 

This fall, Catholic schools, which were open for in-person learning last school year, saw an almost 7% enrollment increase citywide after years of declines. In the Pilsen and Little Village area, enrollment remained relatively flat, with some schools seeing dips and some more modest increases, an Archdiocese of Chicago spokesman said. 

In a recent enrollment discussion with the school board, Martinez noted the private school uptick, with a 25% increase in Chicago Public Schools departures for private campuses during the pandemic. But he pointed out that those departures are a small piece of the district’s enrollment puzzle. He said his team is working on a deeper enrollment analysis at the school and neighborhood level, exploring, among other things, how program offerings at different campuses might play a role.

But he said it is clear to him that larger migration and demographic trends are at play. He was surprised to learn that the majority of English learners in the state now live outside Chicago, a major change since he last worked in the district a decade ago.

“The vast majority of the students we see leaving are leaving Chicago,” he said. “It does beg a lot of questions for me, for example about the inequities that exist between our district and other districts outside Chicago.” 

School board members applauded that push to better understand the reasons for the enrollment losses and address them more proactively. 

“I want to make sure we are learning from this,” said board member Lucino Sotelo, “so we are more preemptive.”  

Mauricio Peña contributed to this report.

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