Preliminary enrollment data shows that kindergarten enrollment is down 17% from what it was projected to be; there are many more Spanish-speaking students than English-speaking students in the Two-Way Immersion (TWI) program; and more special education students are being assigned to their attendance-area schools than before. 

Sarita Smith, Manager of Student Assignment, presented an Opening of Schools Enrollment Update to the School Board on Sept. 21. The official Opening Schools Report will be presented in December. 

Overall Enrollment

“There are about 227 fewer students registered than we projected from last year,” said Ms. Smith. “We obviously can’t deny the impact that COVID-19 has had on our kindergarten enrollment, and our early withdrawals from District 65.”

The biggest difference between the projections and the actual enrollment was for kindergarten. The District was projecting a kindergarten enrollment of 777 students, and 642 enrolled, 135 fewer than projected.

Ms. Smith said, “Kindergarten registrations are noticeably behind due to parents keeping their students in Pre-K another year, families deciding to home school, or enrolling the kindergarten student in a smaller private school setting.”

The enrollment in first, third, fifth, seventh and eighth grades was very close to projections, and the more significant differences were in second grade (-33 students, fourth grade (-21 students) and sixth grade (-41 students). See above chart.

Ms. Smith added, “Over the course of last year, we had 400 withdraws. This year, we have already processed over 315 of those prior to, almost prior to school starting. 

“Anecdotally, we’ve heard from a lot of parents that once we return to in-person that they plan to re-enroll their kids, but the remote learning setting just logically wasn’t where their family needed to be,” said Ms. Smith.

Special Education Students

Ms. Smith showed an enrollment snapshot of special education students, and thanked Romy DeCristofaro, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, and the Special Services Department for their help to appropriately place special education students in the right schools and programs.

She added that due to Ms. DeCristofaro’s leadership, “We now have increased our special education services at eight additional schools: Dewey, Kingsley Lincoln, Lincolnwood, Orrington, Willard and Walker and Washington. Now all of our schools can support students with an IEP [Individual Education Program]. So it’s very exciting to have those conversations with parents and not shift our kids around or bus them around the City for their educational needs.”

There are 925 special education students in the District, including 27 who attend Park School and 24 who attend Rice Children’s Center. 

One goal stated in the Miracles Framework presented by Dr. Horton at the Sept. 2 Board meeting is by the end of the 2021-22 school year, the referral rates of Black and Latinx students for special education services will be reduced by 15% Districtwide, and by the end of the 2022-23 school year, 30% of Black students with IEPs will be educated in the general education setting 80% or more of the time. 

Two-Way Immersion (TWI) Program

A total of 780 students are enrolled in the TWI program, 317 of whom are English speaking students and 463 are Spanish speakers and Spanish/English proficient. The above chart shows the imbalance by grade level, and also shows that the English speakers in TWI generally decline between kindergarten and fifth grade. 

One of the fidelity criteria for the TWI program is that it have an equal number of English dominant and Spanish dominant students.

Ms. Smith said, “TWI remains a sought after program in our School District. We have a placement and priority process for dominant Spanish speaking students, and a lottery process [for others].” She said the data for Spanish speakers includes students whose native language is Spanish, but who are also proficient in English.

She said the number of Spanish-speaking students at the kindergarten level is lower than the number of English speaking students because some  students did not show up to register during the summer. She said they are trying to rectify that imbalance by filling any spaces that arise when English speaking students withdraw from the program by actively searching for Spanish-speaking students to fill those seats first.

Ms. Smith added, “We will also be streamlining our lottery process next year to ensure that we meet appropriate fidelity criteria for the TWI program, using equitable placement processes where we place all the Spanish speaking students first and backfill with English speaking students.

Permissive Transfers

Ms. Smith said that there are a total of 290 permissive transfers this year. ‘I think we’ve done a relatively good job of maintaining these numbers, they’re pretty low,” said Ms. Smith.

A permissive transfer allows a student to transfer to a school that is not their attendance area school. “Over the past few years, the permissive transfer and lottery process were merged,” said Ms. Smith. “This has caused inequitable systems and disconnects policy from practice.

“This year, we will be paying close attention to how we manage these applications and making sure that we manage them as closely to our Board policies as possible. We are kind of decoupling this process from our lottery process, and making sure that our selective enrollment programs, like ACC, TWI, and our magnet schools are reserved for lottery, and the permissive transfer will be vetted through an application process, particularly as we come out of COVID and want to maintain keeping students in their local area schools.” 

Looking Ahead

“Over the next five years, our research and accountability department has projected us to continuously increase in enrollment numbers,” said Ms. Smith.

“Based on average enrollment numbers over the past three years, we’re going to be paying close attention to specific schools, Dawes, Dewey, Willard, Chute and King Arts, whose enrollment numbers have decreased by about 30 students.”

Ms. Smith added, “The impacts of COVID, particularly in the kindergarten registration numbers seemed to be impacting all of our schools this year. So we’re really kind of determining if it’s a COVID factor, or it’s because something else is going on in these schools.”

She added, “Our registration team is currently analyzing how COVID-19 is going to impact our class sizes and our schools. As we prepare for this next year’s registration process, we’re being intentional about marketing and being policy driven and creating equitable decisions as we in regards to permissive transfer and selective enrollment.”

Board Comments 

Most of the School Board’s comments focused on the TWI program.

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said more Latinos in the United States were becoming English proficient and that the percentage has grown from 59% in 2000 to 71% in 2018.

She said that the percentage of Latinx families who speak Spanish at home has also been decreasing, and the number of families who want to be in TWI program was decreasing.

“And I think a lot of times we feel like – and this is my personal take – that we try to force Spanish speaking families to be in the TWI program,” said Ms. Mendoza.  She added that families have asked her what is the benefit for Spanish-speaking students to be in that program.

She said culture is not included in the selection of students for the TWI program. So that a student who identified as Latinx but who did not speak Spanish at home is not given an advantage in the selection process.

Ms. Mendoza said these issues should be considered in future discussions about the TWI program.

Ms. Smith suggested that a student whose grandparents speak Spanish at home should get priority over an English- dominant student, even if the Spanish student may speak English and test pretty well. She said this issue is “definitely on the table” and “is something we’ve already been considering.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez said that augmenting the TWI program ‘with a cultural piece really pays dividends for the native language Spanish speakers.” 

He added it may sound good that a student whose parents speak Spanish can speak English, but “comprehension is a whole other deal.”

Board President Anya Tanyavutti asked if there were enough spaces in the TWI classrooms to maintain a 50/50 balance now that the TWI program was expanded to Bessie Rhodes. Ms. Smith said, “Yes, the space is there.”

Dr. Horton said “On a larger scale, this is going to be a major part of our student assignment plan.” One stated goal in the Miracles Framework is to develop a new student assignment plan that will focus on students who do not have a local area school and students in overcrowded schools.

One section of the Miracles Framework says a strategy is to change school attendance-area boundaries.

Some Board members asked whether students could enter the TWI program at first grade or higher, and if the District needed to develop some strategies for “onboarding” after kindergarten.

Board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan said that the sibling preference given in the TWI selection process needed to be reevaluated. She said the preference creates sort of a dynasty and denies equitable access to the program for other families.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...