About 1,400 students who could be attending elementary or middle school in District 65 this year are going to private or parochial schools instead, according to D65 Student Assignment Manager Sarita Smith.

Smith told the Board of Education earlier this week that “that’s pretty high for private school in Evanston.” She said the usual yearly number of potential D65 enrollees at Evanston’s eight largest private or religious schools is about 700-1,000.

The private school statistics were part of a larger presentation about the ongoing decrease in District 65 enrollment, which has dropped more than 1,500 students since 2017-18, and now stands at 5,974 in grades K-8.

And the public school district is anticipating further enrollment declines.

Enrollment projections for 2031-32 show only 5,096 youngsters, in a district with 16 non-specialty buildings with room for 9,294 students.

That, said board members, means school closings are on the way over the next few years.

“We need to consolidate,” said board member Soo La Kim.

“We can’t operate 16 buildings for 5,000 students,” she said.

Assignment Manager Smith presented statistics showing that of 11 similarly sized districts, D65 has the largest number of buildings, although the data does not include measurements about the size of the structures, which could impact the total count.

Still, with District 65 needing to downsize the new 5th Ward school to trim construction costs, cut next year’s budget by $4 million (separate from the 5th Ward savings), and long-term maintenance needs of something like $200 million for existing buildings, the end is on the horizon for some facilities.

We just don’t know which ones yet.

Smith called for a 5- to 7-year school consolidation plan, to be drawn up by next fall. That does not mean any closings will happen that quickly, just that the plan will have been developed.

The opening of the new 5th Ward building, now potentially in the fall of 2026, will also impact which other buildings stay or go.

The new school was originally supposed to house up to 1,000 kids, grades K-8, as part of an overall redrawing of school boundaries to allow most children to walk school.

But with the 5th Ward building downsizing to 600 students, K-5, that could ripple through the entire district and impact the school board’s priority of having nearly all D65 kids walk to a neighborhood school, to reduce busing.

“Right-sizing the district based on numbers is different than walkability,” said board member Joey Hailpern.

Interim Superintendent Angel Turner said a redesigned, downsized 5th Ward school plan will be presented to the board on Dec. 18, with the goal of a final vote on whatever design is approved about a month after that.

As for why District 65 enrollment keeps dropping, even though the number of age-eligible students has slightly increased in the district according to Census Bureau survey data from the past five years, officials have cited factors such as declining birth rates, the high cost of Evanston housing, and families opting for private schools that were open while public schools were on remote learning during the pandemic.

“COVID had a pretty big impact over the last three years,” Smith explained.

Another possible impact may be coming soon.

D65 is in the midst of a superintendent search process, to replace Devon Horton.

Smith noted that “when you get a new superintendent, things happen in this district,” which could effect enrollment.

But what’s not known is whether that impact will lead to more kids attending District 65, or more kids leaving.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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