District 65 is experiencing a return of students thanks to in-person learning, according to a presentation by Sarita Smith, Manager of Student Assignments. At the Sept. 27 School Board meeting, Smith reported that at this time last year, there were large variances (differences in projected versus actual enrollment) in five grades throughout the District – kindergarten, second, fourth, sixth and eighth – compared with noteworthy variances only in kindergarten, second and sixth grades this year.
Smith said that as of two weeks ago, kindergarten enrollment was 641, a sizable decrease from the projected 722 students. “That’s a variance of 81. But we had a variance last year of about 141. So again, vast difference from what we did last year, obviously opening schools has helped drastically with that variance.”
Referencing her chart that showed 50 fewer students than expected in sixth grade, Smith stated that kindergarten and sixth grade have traditionally been “natural transitions,” with some preschools opening kindergarten classes and sixth grade emerging as an opportunity to try “a different type of school.”
Smith said some kindergarten families registered but opted to stay at home or in preschool for the year, while sixth-grade families self-reported withdrawals due to “going private, staying home [homeschooling] or having moved out of the area.” She noted that the second-grade variance is “a bit of an anomaly. And we are definitely still looking into that.”
Currently, the overall K-8 enrollment of 6,546, compared with the projected 6,792 student, is a negative 246 variance. However, Smith maintained that enrollment continues to evolve as families continue to opt back into the District, almost two months after the first day of school.
“We are still registering students literally every single day,” she said. “So these numbers will look a little bit different when you get a formal back-to-school update.” Smith added that 53 K-8 students are already in the pipeline to add to that update, pending completion of registration and health documents.
The enrollment for the District’s specialty programs – Joseph E. Hill Early Childhood Center, Park School and Rice Children’s Center – is currently at a negative variance of 72, with 417 students enrolled compared to 489 at this time last year, according to Smith.
“Our preschoolers are lagging behind in the registration a little bit, but we also have 150 pending right now. Their [registration] process is a little slower … so I’m not concerned with preschool picking up. We have 45 infants and toddlers also pending … we projected our [overall] enrollment to be about 7,281 and I do not think by the end of this year, we’ll be far from that number,” Smith said.
District 65 publishes an annual five-year enrollment projections document to estimate upcoming needs such as space, staffing and transportation, as well as revenues and expenditures. A variety of factors including birth rates, construction and demolition of residences, family mobility and changes in the economy affect the estimates made, as well as their accuracy. A comparison of the projections made in November 2019 compared with those posted in December 2020 highlights the striking and unprecedented impact of the pandemic.
In November 2019, the actual K-8 enrollment was 7,396 students and the projected enrollment for 2020-21 was expected to stay at a similar level with 7,339 students. However, the pandemic ushered in a great decrease, such that the actual enrollment in 2020-21 was only 6,977 students – a difference of 362 fewer students than predicted. Similarly, in 2019, it was predicted that 7,194 students would be enrolled in 2021-22, but that prediction has now been greatly reduced to the current projection of 6,792 students – a difference of 402 fewer students.
The big decrease in actual enrollments is noteworthy: In the transition from 7,396 students in the pre-pandemic 2019-20 to 6,977 in 2020-21, there is a difference of 419 fewer actual students.
In addition, the District’s pre-pandemic 2019 projection predicted a downward trend over a four-year period, from an estimated 7,339 students in 2020-21 to 7,005 in 2024-25, a difference of 334 fewer students. Starting with an already greatly reduced actual enrollment of 6,977 students in 2020-21, the 2020 projection, estimated after the spring and fall of remote learning, predicts an even greater decrease in that same four-year period, with 510 fewer students anticipated by 2024-25.
Moving beyond anecdotal evidence and speculation to explain the enrollment data, the Board on June 14 approved the hire of Cordogan Clark to lead a Master Facility Planning study. As Raphael Obafemi, Chief Financial Officer, said, “Until we get definitive, quantitative numbers from a demographer, I think we’ll just be guessing, which is why I think it’s important to look at population trends, childbirth and migration in the area to help us plan better.”
The firm’s tasks include facilities assessment, feasibility studies, ADA and life/safety analysis and implementation, programming, master planning, space and capacity planning as well as enrollment and demographics analysis. Currently in progress, the work will be completed over the course of the current 2021-22 school year.
The other “big enrollment story is managing 3-feet social distancing,” Smith said, which is limiting because “if you have 3-feet social distancing, that means we have less capacity at all of our schools.” According to Smith, 23 sections, or grades at schools, have thus far been closed “because they have reached capacity for our 3-feet social distancing.”
Working with building leaders and the maintenance team, with a measuring stick literally in hand, Smith said that spaces have been eked out for additional desks in some classrooms. But in some cases, classrooms are physically unable to accommodate more desks while upholding the distancing requirement. There are “41 students that we have placed in a different school other than their local area school,” Smith said. “So, if your school is at capacity, the first option I give parents is to go to another local area school within their feeder pattern if there’s space, and the other option obviously has been Bessie Rhodes and King Arts.”
In response to Board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan’s question as to the potential financial impact of enrollment variances, Obafemi explained that Illinois public school funding is now determined with an Evidence-Based Formula (EBF) “whereby a big chunk of the funds that we get is tied to our access to resources.”
Classifying schools using a tier system with Tier 1 as “the schools with limited access to capital,” District 65, Obafemi said, is “one of those that are considered Tier 4, which is the highest tier you can be. So what happened is when EBF came into being in 2017, we were held harmless, which meant that we would not lose any money, unless we have a substantial decrease in enrollment.”
Obafemi said the deficit of 300 students is not substantial enough to trigger a reduction in funding due to the “special circumstances of the pandemic” and the fact that a decreased enrollment is not unique to District 65. If it was “a regular year and we as a district lost that many students and other districts are not experiencing that, I would be concerned.”
Slide from Sarita Smith’s Enrollment Update at District 65’s September 27, 2021 Board Meeting:
Pre-pandemic projections (5-Year Enrollment Projections – 2020-21 to 2024-25):
Post-lockdown projections (5-Year Enrollment Projections – 2021-22 to 2025-26):