Illustration by Eva Azenaro Acero
Illustration by Eva Azenaro Acero

Since she began teaching at Irma C. Ruiz Elementary School in the Pilsen/Heart of Chicago community four years ago, special education teacher Paula Barajas has seen the student body shrink by nearly a third. The loss of students at Ruiz Elementary is part of a larger pattern of enrollment loss at schools throughout Pilsen and La Villita. Over the last five years, more than one in five students has disappeared from these schools. 

With this decline, a number of Barajas’ students, many of whom require individualized education plans (IEP), have relocated and started over at new schools. The IEPs are developed by her, other educators, and the child’s parents to meet the student’s needs. According to Barajas, she should keep these students for three years to help them follow through with their IEPs, but some of them have left in the middle of this. 

“Students leave because they’ve had to move more southwest or more south because they cannot afford the rent in this area,” she said.

The trend has continued into this year, according to testimony at a Chicago Board of Education meeting in October. Compared to the district’s three-percent overall decline in enrollment this fall, there were between six percent and seven percent fewer students at schools in the two historically majority-Latinx neighborhoods. And although Latinx students continue to represent the largest racial group in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), they had the highest number of students leaving in the past year at 5,232.

In a district that primarily bases its schools’ budgets on headcounts, the smaller numbers don’t bode well for Pilsen and La Villita. As the student population goes down, the likelihood of cuts to faculty and extracurricular programs goes up, raising the probability for future school closures and creating a cycle that exacerbates the student exodus. According to 2020-21 CPS data, there are 7,902 more seats than students enrolled in the Pilsen and La Villita region, with only sixty-three percent of elementary school seats filled and seventy-seven percent of high school seats filled. 

“When you start cutting teachers, chances are it winds up being teachers who do art, music,” said Barajas, who sits on a teacher council, an advisory board that was formed by the alderperson in the 25th Ward last year to discuss causes and impacts of enrollment losses. “I think every parent wants to send their students to a school that has a wide range of extracurricular opportunities for their child.”

Of the 443 teachers who were laid off this summer, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey noted in a June 22nd press release, the highest number by ZIP code taught at schools located in North Lawndale and La Villita. 

In the past year, Ruiz Elementary saw a 15 percent drop in enrollment. Other elementary schools in Pilsen, La Villita, and North Lawndale with a ten-percent drop or more in enrollment over the past year include: Zapata, Gary, Cardenas, Madero, Hammond, Pickard, Orozco (which lost over a quarter of its students), Pilsen, Walsh, Crown, and Johnson. 

Martha Herrera, the president of the board of directors for community advocacy organization Pilsen Alliance, said she felt the toll of declining enrollment during the two decades she spent teaching kindergarten at Whittier Dual Language Magnet School in Pilsen. 

When she started at the Pre-K-8 school in the late 1990s (which was then Pre-K-6), Herrera estimated that approximately 800 students attended Whitter. Within a few years, there were noticeably fewer students at the school, she said. By the time Whittier implemented a dual-language immersion program in 2009—in part an effort to draw more students to the school—the student body was half of what it was when Herrera began.

As enrollment continued to decline, there were fewer and fewer teachers on staff when school began each fall. Herrera was the only kindergarten teacher at Whittier during the last few years she taught prior to her retirement in 2018, forcing her to take on classes larger than thirty some years. 

“Nobody can teach like that,” Herrera said. “I don’t care how good of a teacher you are, you have different levels [of student progress], especially starting in kindergarten. So the enrollment dropping, mostly it is, you know, gentrification, but it’s [also] the resources that schools get.”

On the twentieth day of school this year, there were 178 students enrolled at Whittier—twenty of whom were kindergarteners.

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Since last school year, 3,129 students left CPS for nonpublic schools in Chicago. Nearly six times as many, however, transferred to a school outside of the city. 

“The vast majority of the students that we see leaving are leaving Chicago,” said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez at the October board meeting. “It does beg a lot of questions for me.”

Overall, there are fewer children in these communities.

According to the most recent available data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, five-year estimates ending in 2014 and 2019 showed 5.8 percent fewer households with one or more people under the age of eighteen in ZIP code 60608, which primarily covers Pilsen.

ZIP code 60623, which envelops most of La Villita and North Lawndale, during that same period lost 8.1 percent of its households with children, leaving it at 41.2 percent. More than half of that decline took place between five-year estimates ending in 2018 and 2019.

In Pilsen, 25th Ward Alderperson Byron Sigcho-Lopez pointed to gentrification and housing affordability as some of the primary causes of families fleeing the neighborhood. Paying rent became more difficult during the pandemic due to job loss, he added, contributing to families moving to less costly areas.

“The City is not investing nearly enough in what is important for affordable and public housing,” Sigcho-Lopez said. 

As of 2019, approximately 62.7 percent of residents in ZIP code 60608 were renters. The median rent there has increased at a faster rate than the rest of Chicago, according to Census Bureau data. Between five-year estimates ending in 2018 and 2019, the median rent in Chicago went up by 3.2 percent, but in Pilsen’s ZIP code, it rose by 5.8 percent.

Enrollment losses continued to rise over the course of the pandemic due to a higher number of barriers to accessing the increasingly expensive housing in the neighborhood, said Pilsen Neighbors Community Council Executive Director Juan Soto. 

“When families or individuals lose their job because of a pandemic, then they can’t pay their rent or their mortgage payment,” Soto said, “and then that puts them even at a further disadvantage.”

Alderperson Michael “Mike” Rodríguez, who represents the portion of La Villita contained in the 22nd Ward, said that although gentrification is seeping into the eastern edge of the neighborhood, the loss of students there is rooted in other causes. 

Aside from declining birth rates that are impacting the entirety of Chicago, Rodriguez suggested population changes are a result of “the Westernization of Mexico … and people moving to major urban centers in Mexico versus coming as immigrants to the United States, and hence to La Villita, the Mexican capital of the Midwest. In addition, there’s been racist and xenophobic federal policies to build walls and exclude immigrants.”

The Census Bureau estimated that as of 2019, over a third of La Villita residents were born outside the U.S.

Nearly all stakeholders are worried that the drop in resources available at schools that have been hit hardest by enrollment declines is exacerbating the problem. Barajas hopes that the 25th Ward teacher council can begin to assess to what extent this decline in resources is impacting low enrollment schools in CPS this year.

“I believe many aldermen (and parents) would be interested…to know what is being offered at different schools,” Baraja said. “And what is a solution so that we can actually offer more of those programs at different schools with a decreasing budget?”

School board member Lucino Sotelo said at the October meeting that moving forward, CPS needs to engage local aldermen and community members in its approach to addressing enrollment loss. The district must be proactive instead of reactive and make sure that “policymakers are actually also taking a look at this and see what we need to do … systemically,” he said.

In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said the district has seen consistent enrollment declines of three to four percent for more than a decade, with a slightly higher drop in 2021. “We’re developing plans to leverage the district’s great programming across multiple neighborhoods,” Martinez said. “I believe if we can improve and expand on programming, we can help stabilize our enrollment amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

They added that CPS is seeking to understand the factors behind the declines.

“Now is the opportunity for us to really move forward with this idea of (listening to) different stakeholders and their voices,” Barajas said. “We’re just going to continue to have a steady decline, which is not going to work. It’s not working for the district, it’s not working for administrators, it’s not working for teachers and it’s not working for the families.”

Update, December 12, 2021: This story was updated to include a statement from CPS.

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Emily Anderson is a freelance journalist and graduate student in Northwestern University’s Medill Investigative Lab who most recently worked as an education reporter at the Standard-Examiner in Utah. This is her first story for the Weekly.

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