Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining student enrollments in the area and possible causes for high loses in some school districts.

It will be another three years before the U.S. Census is out and the full effect of Illinois’ poor economy and financial woes on population figures are known, but educators have a gauge that annually measures its population. The picture isn’t good for some.

Pekin Community High School District 303 Superintendent Danielle Owens is concerned. The district has seen a sharp decline in its student population in the past few years. The 2018 sixth-day enrollment figure starting out the year is 1,840 students. In 2012, the population at the end of the year was 2,046, so the district has lost 206 students over the last five years. At one point last year the district was down to 1,760 students.

“We had lost a couple hundred kids, which obviously is concerning — that directly affects general state aid because of your average daily attendance,” said Owens. “We’re seeing more and more kids transferring in and out.

“We always drop between first and second semester — I would say probably 30 or 40 kids — but when we took a drop of a couple hundred last year that was concerning. I don’t know if it’s the economy. Obviously, we have areas around that are really affected by what’s going on with Cat. Even if a family doesn’t have a parent that is working at Cat, there’s a lot of smaller industries or businesses around that feed into that that are affected.”

The Illinois State Board of Education is not concerned with the decline in students. The state’s student enrollment figures for 2016 was 2,041,779. In 2011, the state enrollment was at 2,074,806 — a difference of 33,027.

“We don’t do causal analysis for student enrollment at specific districts,” said Jackie Matthews, ISBE director of media and external communications. “Statewide, I believe there is a population decline in Illinois as a state.

“ISBE’s less concerned about how many students are we serving, and we’re more concerned about are we serving students well and what can we do to make sure the students we do have in our schools we are serving well and equitably.”

The issues

Owens said it is hard to quantify how much is lost when enrollment goes down because the district has not been fully funded by the state for several years. The enrollment for this year will rise slightly as the year progresses, said Owens, but not enough to make up the loss. District 303 students come from five elementary districts — Pekin District 108, Rankin District 98, South Pekin District 137, Spring Lake District 606 and North Pekin/Marquette Heights District 102.

“I suppose you could take the $6,119/per student that we were supposed to get in GSA and multiply that by about 200 students to get $1,223,800, but that number isn’t completely accurate as we haven’t received that base amount per student in several years,” she said. “With the new (state) funding formula (this year), we should not receive less than what we received last year, but average daily attendance going down will lower that amount as time goes on.

“In terms of how less students effect electives, I really don’t see that harming those unless we would ever get in a position where we have to cut entire programs because of funds, which we are not in the ballpark of doing. Up to this point, no matter our student population, we have students sign up for course offerings, and there are always courses that ‘do not go’ based on low interest. When this happens, the student is asked to pick another elective to go into.”

The district not is not only concerned with a decline in enrollment numbers.

“Specifically what we’re concerned with is the number of teaching candidates that we don’t have coming out of universities, because number one, people aren’t going into education as a profession and, number two, we have a lot of students who are graduating from our high schools and not even choosing to attend school, a four-year university in the state of Illinois or stay in the state of Illinois,” said Owens. “There’s just a lot going on.”

Owens said there is a sprawl out from Peoria — students there are migrating to other districts in the area. She said, “Unfortunately, I don’t think that spreads to Pekin.” She said the district has talked with the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce and the Pekin Economic Development Committee about “how to better capture people who want to either leave the Peoria area or whatever the case may be.”

“They tend to go to Dunlap, Washington or Morton,” she said. “Why not Pekin — what do we need to attract them here?

“I think Pekin has a hard time historically marketing itself with those other communities. Obviously, I’m someone who lives in the Pekin area and moved from Dunlap back to the Pekin area. I think (Pekin’s) public parks are wonderful, I think the schools are great, but for whatever reason Pekin just is not on the radar.”

Owens said education plays a vital role in attracting new residents and business to the community, but the community as a whole  — business, the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce, city government and many other entities — need to be involved in a joint effort. She plans on gathering “the movers and shakers” later this year at the high school.

“I want to get people in here to see our facility, because even if they are a graduate of Pekin High, they haven’t been here for a while,” she said. “It has changed a lot. We want to do a better job promoting what we’re doing here.”