Public schools across Northwest Indiana are seeing enrollment plunge.
Enrollment across the 16 public school districts in Lake County collectively fell 6.78% from the 2017-18 school year to 2022-23, according to a Times analysis of data from the Indiana Department of Education. During that same five-year period, Porter County school districts saw a 3.52% decline, while LaPorte County school districts saw a 3.94% decrease. Newton and Jasper counties saw 12.49% and 4.50% declines, respectively.
"It's going to impact every level," Mark Sperling, professor and interim dean of the Indiana University Northwest School of Education, said.
This falling enrollment isn't shared equally. The greatest drops were at Gary Community School Corp., with a 22% decline; Griffith Public Schools, with a 19.98% decline; and North Newton School Corp., with an 18.58% decline.
While they're the exception, other districts in the area saw increases, including Crown Point Community School Corp., with a 6.62% increase; Valparaiso Community Schools, with a 2.36% increase; and Porter Township School Corp., with an 8.45% increase.
Although, even the districts experiencing growth are seeing other statistics that forecast future declines. In Crown Point, there are 700 seniors at Crown Point High School — the district's sole high school — this semester, according to figures provided by the district. When that class entered the district as kindergarteners in 2010, there were 471 of them. The reason that's nearly doubled is that the district is adding students at each grade level. That accounts for the present growth, but district officials are concerned about another statistic: In 2021-22, the district had 613 kindergarten students, but in 2022-23, that number was down to 538, meaning the district's kindergarten classes are shrinking.
"Down the road, as the elementary school population reduces, the high school population will also reduce," Sperling said.
As to why this is happening, Sperling said "it's a combination of things."
From 2010 to 2020, Lake County saw a 7.2% decrease in its under-18-year-old population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At the same time, Porter and LaPorte counties saw 4.1% and 5.7% decreases respectively in this age group. Newton County saw a 2.9% decrease, and Jasper County saw an 8.2% decrease.
While this isn't exclusive to Northwest Indiana — in 2021, the U.S. saw a growth rate of 0.1%, the lowest since the nation’s founding, according to the Census Bureau — it's particularly large here.
This has led to fewer kids filling public school seats.
With 11,505 students, School City of Hammond is Northwest Indiana's largest school district. It saw a 16.44% enrollment decline over the past five years.
In 2019, the district hired a demographer to examine trends in the district with this very problem in mind. Jerome McKibben, a Ph.D. demographer who performs similar studies for schools across the U.S., predicted slow decreases over 10 years.
His final report, which the district shared with The Times, notes Hammond's birth rate, 2.02, is lower than the replacement rate of 2.10; the median age of the district, which he projects will move from 33.4 in 2010 to 41.4 in 2030; the 18-to-24-year-old population moving out of Hammond; an increasing number of "empty-nest" households; and low new home sales in the district.
"It's been even worse than he expected," Hammond Superintendent Scott Miller said.
Miller said this declining enrollment has created issues for the district. In Indiana, state education funding is distributed on a per-student basis. For every student, a district receives around $7,000-7,500.
"If you take that $7,000 and multiply it by 2,000 students, you're looking at $14 million of lost funding over the past five years," he said. "That's a lot."
The issue, Miller explained, is more than just having less funding; it's actively losing funding.
"When you have significant funding losses, the end result is a few things," he said. "One of them is that it absolutely contributed to the need to close high schools."
In 2021, the district closed Clark and Gavit high schools. Nearby Gary Community School Corp., which saw an even more dramatic decline, has shuttered six schools since 2018 and even more in the years prior. In Gary, the vacant school buildings have become hotspots for crime and have cost the district millions of dollars to demolish, according to previous Times reporting.
"Consolidating schools hurts communities," Miller said. "Especially, in urban communities, people feel a very strong attachment to their local school."
Miller said it also hurts staffing.
"Having less resources means less you can offer teachers," he said. "We're already starting to see that, whereas some of the more affluent communities are continuing to grow like Crown Point. I like Crown Point; I love their leadership. But they're able to pay their teachers significantly more. For a teacher to be able to make $10,000 more a year, that's a fifth of their salary in a lot of cases, so it becomes difficult for us to attract talent."
He said it has "a real domino effect" to the point where they aren't able to offer students the same level of opportunities.
Miller acknowledged Hammond receives more money from Title I, which distributes federal funds to schools that serve low-income families, than districts in southern Lake County, but he said it doesn't offset the loss from enrollment declines. He also said the way state funding is distributed exacerbates this.
"It doesn't give you any grace," he said. "The average layperson says 'they just need to manage their money better.' It's not that simple."
Miller explained that funding is distributed based on student counts in September and February.
"All my teachers are contracted for a whole year, but if my enrollment goes down from September to February, the state starts reducing my money immediately," he said. "If my February count goes down 100 kids, that's $750,000 — 3 quarters of a million. There's no buffer, so even for the most astute financial person, it is very difficult to try and manage your expenses."
While public school enrollment has been falling, Catholic schools in the Diocese of Gary — which spans Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties — reported a 5% increase in enrollment for the 2022-23 school year over 2021-22.
Some school officials attribute that to Indiana's recently expanded school voucher program. For decades, Indiana lawmakers have been pushing for programs to help students attend private schools. The result is the largest state school voucher program in the U.S.
Created in 2011, the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program allows families to opt out of the public school system and receive a voucher for a majority of the state funding that would've normally gone toward their child's education in a public school to spend on private school tuition.
The program has expanded several times since its inception, most recently in April 2021, when the state legislature expanded the income eligibility for the program to include approximately 80% of Indiana students and increased the voucher received by each family to up to 90% of what would've been spent on their education in public schools.
Dan Kozlowski is the managing director of the Northwest Indiana branch of Big Shoulders Fund, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes Catholic schools throughout the greater Chicago area. Since 2019, the organization has had a memorandum of understanding with the Diocese of Gary to provide operational, academic and financial support to its schools.
"We draw a direct line between the expansion of the Indiana School Choice Program and the increase in enrollment in our schools," Kozlowski said. "I can say, almost without a shadow of a doubt, that almost every one of our schools saw an increase in the number of students on the program from '21 to '22."
According to data provided by the state, 1,002 students living within the School City of Hammond used a voucher, thus reducing the student population in Hammond schools. As did 995 from Gary Community School Corp., 252 from Crown Point Community School Corp., 130 from Valparaiso Community Schools and 73 from Duneland School Corp.
Big Shoulders Fund launched a marketing campaign in January 2021 and created online tool, nwichoicescholar.org, to help families determine if they qualify for a voucher.
"We're certainly thankful that the state of Indiana has a school choice program," Kozlowski said.
Kozlowski said the voucher covers full tuition in most of the diocese's elementary schools and around 75% of tuition at its high schools.
While Catholic school officials praise them, school vouchers aren't without their critics.
In March 2021, while expansion of the program was being debated, 15 Lake County public school districts signed onto a joint statement opposing expansion of the Indiana Choice program.
In the statement, they argued that vouchers allowed state funds to be used on schools that discriminate against students on the basis of religion, income, race, academic standing or other factors. They also argued they simply divert funding from public schools, which are held to more stringent reporting and transparency regulations, and help families that already send their children to private schools more than those that don't.
"Public funds should only be used for education that is open and inclusive to all Hoosiers," the statement read.
In spring 2020, Angelina McDonald's twin daughters attended Solon Robinson Elementary School, a public school in Crown Point. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the school, like others across the country, began doing instruction online and continued doing it part-time during the 2020-21 school year.
"My children did not do well with the Zoom learning," she said. "I don't feel that they learned as much being at home on a computer as they would with teachers teaching them in person."
Around that same time, McDonald got hired as a teacher at St. Mary Catholic Community School.
"I was hired in the middle of the school year, and I just immediately fell in love with the school, the teachers, the curriculum," she said. "So the following school year, I immediately wanted to switch them over."
At the start of the 2021-22 school year, McDonald enrolled her children in third grade at St. Mary. She was dismayed by a year and a half of virtual learning, which was especially hard for her family where both she and her husband worked. Additionally, she felt her children were safer from contracting COVID-19 at St. Mary's where students had their temperature taken daily and teachers were stricter with mask-wearing and social distancing.
While the pandemic prompted her decision, like many parents who made similar moves, McDonald had a number of motivations. She attended private school growing up and always wanted that for her children. She said that public schools are too big for her taste and that she likes how private schools have a more tight-knit feel. She also likes having a religious education. Additionally, the family couldn't afford it before taking advantage of the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, which expanded months before this transition.
"I had always wanted my children to go to a private school, but unfortunately it's pretty pricey," she said. "We're grateful we were able to take advantage of that (program) because if it wasn't for that, they'd still be in the public schools."
McDonald has a third child, a boy in seventh grade, but she decided to keep him in Crown Point public schools.
"He was just too far into the education that I didn't want to make a big change for him," she said.
In the same way, McDonald said that as her daughters get further into the Catholic school system, she'll likely keep them there to avoid major disruptions. Additionally, she said she just found an option that works for her daughters.
McDonald isn't alone. Many parents pulled their students from public schools with COVID-19-related restrictions and put them in private schools or homeschooling. For a variety of reasons, some of those families chose not to return to public schools.
A group of professors, data analysts and researchers tracked this in their Return 2 Learn Tracker. According to that study, public schools across the nation lost 1.28 million students from 2020 to 2022 during the pandemic. Locally, School City of Hammond’s enrollment went down 7% during that time period; School City of East Chicago’s more than 10%; Gary Community School Corp. 9.8%; and Lake Central School Corp. 1.8%.
The fact that this decrease didn't occur at Valparaiso Community Schools — which, according to previous reporting from The Times, enacted looser COVID-19 restrictions than many other area districts — also supports this as a contributing factor. The district actually increased its enrollment by 1.2% from 2020 to 2022, according to Return 2 Learn Tracker.
Like demographic trends, this phenomenon is not unique to Indiana. Experts nationwide have been sounding the alarm about falling enrollments. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that between fall 2019 and fall 2020, total public K-12 school enrollment dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million students, a 3% drop that brought total enrollment to where it was in 2009 and erased a decade of steady growth.
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