Illinois public schools see another year of enrollment declines

Enrollment at Illinois public schools this year dropped by nearly 10,000 students from the previous year.

That includes 1,787 fewer students at 104 suburban public school districts in Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties, according to fall enrollment figures released by the Illinois State Board of Education last week.

It continues a trend that has seen enrollment drop by nearly 200,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade statewide over the past decade. That represents a 9.8% decline since the 2015 school year. Among the 104 suburban school districts, enrollment is down 6.9% during the same time frame, records show.

Nowhere is the decline more stark than at West Chicago Elementary District 33, which has 27.8% fewer students this year than a decade ago. That amounts to 1,149 fewer kindergarten through eighth grade students. The district’s enrollment also dropped 3.5% from last year as well.

“We’re in a unique situation where we’re essentially landlocked with almost no available residential land left to be developed for new families to come into the district,” said Karen Apostoli, District 33’s executive director for business and operations. “We also have a large population of empty-nesters who do not appear to be in any hurry to move out of the area.”

District 33’s enrollment decline means the district is closing one school next year to convert it to a preschool center and changing school building boundaries that will send many students to new schools.

Apostoli said the district has been reducing personnel as well “through attrition” rather than layoffs.

“Retired positions are not being filled because student numbers are reducing,” she said.

In addition to District 33, other districts that have seen enrollment declines of more than 20% in the past decade include Addison Elementary District 4 and Wood Dale Elementary District 7 in DuPage County. Rosemont Elementary District in Cook County along with Diamond Lake Elementary District 76, Millburn Elementary District 24 and Woodland Elementary District 50 in Lake County also saw declines greater than 20% since 2015, according to ISBE records.

Elgin Area District U-46 has seen a 14.2% decline during that time. But that amounts to more than 5,500 students for the state’s second-largest school district.

U-46 lost another 569 students this year, or 1.7% of the head count from last year, according to the state’s annually required fall enrollment figures. District officials put the decline closer to 474 students though.

“We dipped below 35,000 students for the first time in quite a while,” U-46 chief of staff Brian Lindstrom told the board during a strategic plan briefing last fall. “The enrollment decline is primarily due to declining birthrates, not parents pulling their children from U-46 schools.”

Lindstrom said private schools are seeing similar enrollment declines. Forecasts show the district could see enrollment dip as low as 30,000 students in the coming years.

U-46 spokeswoman Karla Jimenez said the enrollment decline has already led the district to close two elementary schools, with plans to close three more in Elgin among other changes.

“Planning is underway to adjust our attendance boundaries as we also work to shift our sixth grade students from elementary school into middle school,” she added.

The enrollment decline hasn’t hit all school districts, though.

In fact, among the 104 suburban school districts examined, only about half (58) reported fewer students this year compared to last year.

At Des Plaines Elementary District 62, enrollment rose 4.4% from last year with 177 additional students.

“Our increase was driven primarily by Russian, Ukrainian and Kyrgyzstan families fleeing the conflict,” said District 62 Superintendent Michael Amadei. “The funding piece has been difficult, and we’re looking at how we’re allocating dollars in different ways, but we’re fortunately getting some help from our elected representatives.”

Space is also an issue. Amadei said North Elementary usually houses about 420 students a year, but enrollment there this year was up to 567 students.

The situation is similar in Wheeling Elementary District 21, which saw a 2.4% increase in enrollment from last year, which amounted to 137 more students among the district’s 12 school buildings.

“We haven’t had to do it midyear, but we are going to be making some shifts next year,” said Beatrice Childress, District 21’s assistant superintendent for equity and learning. “We’re also going to start with lower class sizes in anticipation of growing enrollment.”

The enrollment decline this year wasn’t as sharp as it has been in recent years, particularly in the 2020-2021 school year marked by COVID-19 pandemic uncertainty when public schools reported more than 45,500 fewer students.

All told, the fall enrollment figures released by ISBE last week showed the statewide public school head count at 1,766,547 students this year, down from 1,775,941 in 2023. The same snapshot in 2015 showed 1,959,250 students enrolled across Illinois public schools.

  West Chicago Elementary District 33 enrollment figures show a 27.8% decline over the past decade, one of the biggest drops in the suburbs during that time, according to state figures released last week. John Starks/
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