Enrollment data reveal trends for neighborhood schools, charter schools

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As the district released this year’s official school-by-school enrollment numbers, officials pointed out that the steep 3,800 drop in the student population wasn’t the most dramatic in recent years:  Four times during the past decade enrollment has fallen more sharply, by 5,000-plus students.

Still, it’s the first time in years that Chicago Public Schools have had fewer than 400,000–just 396,683 students, according to the 20th day enrollment data that CPS released late Tuesday. Though it’s been nearly four weeks since the tally was taken, officials didn’t say why it took so long to release the numbers.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of the data reveal some important enrollment trends:

IB, STEM impact

Neighborhood high schools continued to take a hit on enrollment. However, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s initiative to launch new International Baccalaureate and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in these schools seems to be having a mixed effect: All but one of the five new “wall-to-wall” IB schools saw an uptick in enrollment. Clemente, which had been losing students for at least the last five years, saw 32 more students enroll this year, even as district officials were projecting a decline. But overall, most of the high schools that have small IB programs within a larger comprehensive school experienced a drop in enrollment.

On the elementary level, a lot of the schools in which the district launched IB and STEM programs were designated to take in students from schools closed in 2013. In addition to extra teaching positions for the new programs, these so-called “welcoming schools” received iPads and had major renovations to their buildings. Yet welcoming schools experienced an average of 6 percent decline in enrollment.

Alternatives up, some charters down

Alternative schools for at-risk students or dropouts saw the biggest increase in students, with 9,137 students now attending these schools—a 20 percent increase since last year. CPS has said it plans to open more alternative schools, a number of them for-profit.

About 2,500 more students now attend charter schools, a five percent increase since last year. But about 30 percent of charter schools saw a decline in enrollment. Charter schools, like district-run schools, have to contend with the opening of new schools and community population drops.

Cecilia Benitez, director of recruitment and retention at ACE Tech Charter in Washington Park, says the school has had trouble meeting its goal of enrolling 500 students since the opening of Back of the Yards High School, one of the new wall-to-wall IB high schools; and UNO Charter High — Soccer Academy.

“We are seeing a drop in Latinos,” she says. For the past two years, ACE has been about 18 students short of 500. But this year, the school fell to about 448 students.

As a recruiter, Benitez goes to every high school fair to try to beef up enrollment. One of the big selling points for the school is that it can offer students a chance to earn a certificate in building trades, which can help them land jobs.

Even this late in the school year, ACE Tech will accept transfer students (who need to bring in their progress report and discipline report. Prospective students also have to have a meeting with the principal, who decides if they can attend. 

Chicago Collegiate Charter, a fourth- through sixth-grade school that opened last year in Roseland, is also still taking applications for fourth-grade and is letting families join the waiting list for fifth- and sixth-grade.  Roseland’s traditional schools also have plenty of space for more students and the community ranks on the top 5 for enrollment decline.

Sarah Elizabeth Ippel , founder and director of the Academy for Global Citizenship, notes that her charter school might be unusual because it always fills its spots. In fact, it usually gets about 14 times the number of applications for the spots available.

Ippel points to unique characteristics that are selling points for the school: It has an elementary IB program and dual language curriculum, an 8-hour school day–and serves 100 percent organic food.

But filling the seats also has to do with the fact that the surrounding Garfield Ridge neighborhood has many overcrowded schools. “We intentially went into an area that needed additional public school seats,” Ippel says. “I imagine it would be hard to be in an area where there [already] is sufficient capacity.”