Back when Will County’s population was booming, Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202 had no choice but to build.
As headcount ballooned by the thousands, district officials built about two dozen schools in 18 years.
“We never expect to see those days again,” said Tom Hernandez, spokesman for Plainfield District 202, one of the top five school districts in the state in terms of enrollment. “There was a period from 1997 to 2006 where we were growing by 2,500 kids a year. There are entire districts that don’t have 2,500 kids.”
In the past few years, once-booming school districts like Plainfield District 202 have scaled back expansion plans because of overall enrollment declines experienced in most of Will County’s 29 districts. Elsewhere, such as in Channahon School District 17, officials have considered whether to close buildings to save on costs.
Preliminary enrollment figures show Plainfield’s District 202 will be down about 860 students for the 2014-15 school year, bringing the district’s tally to 27,700 students, Hernandez said. In scaling back its master plan, the district recently sold a plot of land to the YMCA that was originally slated for a future elementary school.
But that decline is a drop in the bucket compared to declines experienced in other districts in the region. Twenty of the county’s 29 districts experienced drops between the 2009-10 and 2013-14 academic years, with some officials projecting future declines and others anticipating that trend to turn around.
Districts that saw the greatest drops over a five-year period include Channahon School District 17, Mokena School District 159, Peotone School District 207-U, Union School District 81, and Elwood District 203, ranging from a 20 percent decline in Mokena to a 13.6 percent decline in Elwood.
However, enrollment declines eased a bit across the Will County region between the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, according to the latest state board of education figures.
Joliet District 86 schools will see 160 fewer students this year, tallying in at 11,785 students. It signifies District 86’s first enrollment decline in eight years. But Sandra Zalewski, spokeswoman for the district, said that decrease is less than what was initially forecasted.
She said enrollment at Isaac Singleton Elementary School, the district’s newest school built in 2011, has increased from 493 upon opening to 616 students this year.
Laraway Community Consolidated School District 70, Joliet Township School District 204, Manhattan School District 114, Joliet Public Schools District 86 and Wilmington CUSD 209-U were the top gainers during the five-year period, according to state board of education figures.
Over that same time period, just nine of Will County’s 29 districts experienced enrollment increases between 2010 and 2014.
Predicting the future
Factors such as new housing developments, birth rates and mobility are used to predict future student enrollment, said Shawn Walsh, regional superintendent for Will County. But it’s not always easy to predict what will happen from year to year, he said.
He pointed to Plainfield, which went from “3,000 to 30,000” in 20 years before the housing bubble burst in 2008.
“And now everything has sort of stabilized and reduced,” Walsh said. “I think if the market gets back up, obviously you’re going to see increases in certain areas where building is happening.”
Walsh attributes the decline to families staying in the area after the kids have graduated and the lack of new homes being built.
During the boom years, Lincoln-Way Community High School District 21 went from one school to four. School officials cited population growth. Despite enrollment declines in recent years, district officials point to mild growth experienced at three of its five feeder school districts, including Manhattan District 114, one of the region’s top gainers.
The district’s four high schools – Lincoln-Way East, North, Central and West – all have a “healthy population” ranging between about 1,300 to 2,100 students, Lincoln-Way Superintendent Scott Tingley said.
“If you have those kind of numbers, there’s enough of a population where you can offer a nice scope of course offerings, from academic programs and career to extracurricular activities,” he said.
Tingley said the district’s enrollment projections predict slight gains across all four high schools in the next few years.
Enrollment at Manhattan School District 114 increased 6 percent over a five-year period from 1,237 to 1,314. The grade-school district’s superintendent, Russell Ragon, said he expects a smaller increase of 1.5 percent this year.
Still, Ragon said, he’s satisfied with the overall trend.
“In talking with parents who come in and transfer in, people are coming in from all over the county,” Ragon said. “A lot of it has to do the fact people are coming from communities that are overcrowded and they don’t want to deal with the overpopulation.”
Hernandez said Plainfield District 202 predicts slow, steady growth in the next few years, with a net gain of 100 to 200 new students each year.
Districts statewide will report 2014-2015 fall enrollment numbers to the State Board of Education by Oct. 15. ISBE officials say they plan to release those counts near the start of the new year.
BY THE NUMBERS
Top Five Enrollment Drops (2010 to 2014)
1) Mokena School District 159 (-20.6%)
2) Channahon School District 17 (-15.5%)
3) Peotone School District 207-U (-15.3%)
4) Union School District 81 (-14.3%)
5) Elwood District 203 (-13.6%)
Top Five Enrollment Gains (2010 to 2014)
1) Joliet Public Schools District 86 (+19%)
2) Laraway Community Consolidated School District 70 (+11.2%)
3) Joliet Township School District 204 (+9.1%)
4) Manhattan School District 114 (+6.2%)
5) Wilmington CUSD 209-U (+2.6%)
Source: Illinois State Board of Education