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Early Kindergarten, Grade Skipping: Chicago Considers New Options For Gifted Children

Parents who’ve seen a proposal draft say it sets the bar too high for most children to qualify.

A handbook for New York City students applying for gifted and talented programs.
Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
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CHICAGO — Chicago is floating a plan that would offer gifted and talented children more options beyond seats in its sought-after test-in programs. But parents who’ve seen a proposal draft say it sets the bar too high for most children to qualify.

Under the proposal, Chicago would allow early admittance to kindergarten for children who turn 5 between Sept. 2 and Oct. 31 and who score 98th percentile or higher on a cognitive test administered by a psychologist. Pending school board approval in June, admissions would start this fall, but only include neighborhood schools in the first year.

“As written, it’s only going to let a handful of kindergarteners in,” said Irene Gottlieb, a parent and advocate who attended two parent meetings, one on the South Side and one on the North Side, last week previewing the proposal.

A state law enacted last year requires districts to adopt formal policies for their gifted students. The law went into effect last July, but Chicago delayed compliance for a year so it could study the issue.

In Chicago, schools offer parents the option to test elementary children for placement in gifted and classical programs, but there aren’t enough seats for every child who qualifies and not every neighborhood has a school offering those programs. It also grants early admittance to first grade, but not to kindergarten. A total of 37 students won early entrance to first grade last fall, according to the district.

The draft policy also would establish a districtwide path for older elementary-aged children to either skip grades or advance in a single subject: reading or math. To qualify, students would have to earn a 4.0 GPA in core classes, score at least in the 95th percentile on the NWEA/MAP standardized test, and pass an assessment by a school team determining developmental and social readiness to make the jump.

Only students in third through sixth grades attending neighborhood schools would qualify.

At the North Side meeting, parents in attendance offered critiques about the high thresholds for GPAs and test scores as well as the Oct. 31 cutoff for early kindergarten admission. They also expressed concerns about limiting the policies to neighborhood schools (the kindergarten early admissions would extend to selective-enrollment schools starting in the 2020-21 school year).

Anna Alvarado, chief of the Office of Teaching and Learning, which drafted the plan, told parents and advocates that their feedback would be considered before a final draft was presented to the school board in June.

“It’s impossible to make every single parent and their family happy, but we will do our best to be smart about your recommendations,” she told the group. “We hope you will continue to push our thinking about this.”  

Hands shot up each time Alvarado, a former principal and network chief, presented a new slide. Notetakers for the district furiously typed parents’ comments, which also included concerns about overcrowding in neighborhood schools where their children could take advantage of such options.

One of the parents who attended the meeting at Lincoln Park High School has a daughter who turns 5 on Sept. 2 — the day after Chicago Public Schools’ Sept. 1 current cutoff for kindergarten. She would benefit from an early admittance policy, if her daughter scored in the 98 percentile or higher. But even then, her crowded neighborhood school in Dunning would be her only option.

“I’d like to see some option of a gifted program be open,” said the parent, Nickie, who would only give a reporter her first name since she works for the City of Chicago.

Gottlieb acknowledged the massive undertaking of drafting a plan that would encompass so many schools, but said, as written, the current draft is too narrow.

The “thorny equity part,” she said, is that at schools that underperform district averages on standardized tests and have significant numbers of children living in poverty, it’s unlikely any child — even the gifted ones — will score at such high percentiles. “We need to make sure there are multiple measures,” she said, for determining who qualifies.

Joshua Dwyer, who helped write and lobby for the state law, said that several Illinois districts are grappling with how to equitably identify gifted children. He expressed concern that any policy relying solely on parental initiative disadvantages black and brown children, who research shows are vastly underrepresented in gifted programs compared to their white peers.

A 2016 study titled the Untapped Potential Report examined the gifted gap in Chicago and found that white students, who make up 10 percent of the district, occupied one in four gifted seats. “I would argue that if we’re going to do anything legislatively for these kids, I’d say a universal screen would be the thing.”

Several parents asked Alvarado at Thursday’s meeting why there wasn’t more differentiation currently happening in their schools, so that students with high ability are challenged in their existing classrooms. Alvarado said that’s happening in many schools, but a policy would allow Chicago to formalize more options.

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