GARFIELD PARK — The West Side is getting its first gifted program for elementary school students after years of organizing by parents and educators in the area.
The West Side’s first Regional Gifted Center is being developed at Morton School of Excellence, 431 N. Troy St.
The school lobbied for added gifted programming after Chicago Public Schools began releasing an annual regional analysis in 2017. The data offered a glimpse at what educational opportunities were available in each neighborhood.
The data revealed a critical gap on the West Side, where there were no gifted programs or selective-enrollment elementary schools.
The analysis also opened up a new level of transparency by allowing schools to apply to create programs to fill those gaps.
“Most people didn’t know how schools got these programs,” said Morton Principal Peggie Burnett-Wise. “Some schools had them, and some schools didn’t. Nobody thought their schools could get them.
“To have an opportunity to look at what’s in the community and decide as a community what you need is tremendous and empowering.”
When Wise initially applied for the gifted center, CPS leaders acknowledged the top-rated school would be suitable for the program. Still, district officials asked Wise to survey more West Side families and community action councils to make sure the new institution would be fully used and wouldn’t cannibalize enrollment from other area schools.
But this year, Morton’s application for the gifted center was accepted.
Schools chief Janice Jackson said the program expansions aim to fulfill the district’s pledge of educational equity for students on the South and West sides.
“These critical academic investments push the district closer to a future where every student has access to high-quality educational experiences regardless of the neighborhood they live in,” Jackson said.
According to CPS enrollment statistics, only about 17 kindergarteners on the West Side test into gifted elementary programs each year. At least 30 kindergarteners in the area would have to test into the program to demonstrate adequate demand, according to district officials.
But for many West Side families, it didn’t make sense to go through the arduous testing and application process for selective-enrollment schools since there were no programs in the neighborhood and it’s difficult for many families to travel to other parts of the city for school.
Of the 28 selective-enrollment elementary schools across the city, not one is located on the West Side of Chicago.
Just seeing a regional gifted center within walking distance will encourage West Side families to try to test in because they know these opportunities are truly on the table for them, Wise said.
“We often talk about the opportunity gap. But access helps to close that because now it’s within their reach,” Wise said. “That alone brings students and families closer to that selective type of programming. I think it’s going to open up a lot of doors and opportunities for West Side families.”
Education nonprofit Kids First Chicago helped Morton build community support for its application for the gifted center. They gathered about 1,300 signatures from residents on the West Side in support of the program.
Now the community has to work to overcome barriers to testing. Mohamed Sow, an organizer for Kids First Chicago, said all testing for selective enrollments happens at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville.
“That’s a far trip from the West Side,” Sow said. “The challenge is figuring out the testing. Testing is very restrictive in the way that it happens.”
The new program signals a turning tide for investment in education on the West Side, Wise said. Just a few years ago, dozens of schools on the West Side were closed.
In addition to the gifted program, the area will see new specialized programs like STEM, International Baccalaureate and world languages.
Morton will undergo a one-year incubation period to develop the program. Wise said her administration team and teachers will work with neighborhood groups, parents and community groups to encourage students to take the test and take advantage of the new gifted center.
Wise said the program will have a wealth of new opportunities, such as project-based learning. The school will also get a new language program.
But even though the resources will focus on creating a specialized curriculum for students who test into the gifted center, all Morton students will be able to take advantage of the language classes and other new learning opportunities.
“The benefits aren’t just for the students who test into the gifted program,” Wise said. “It’s for all students.”
Being in a gifted program puts children on track to get into the coveted selective enrollment high schools, such as Whitney Young Magnet School and Lane Tech College Prep, Wise said.
That, in turn, sets them on a path toward college.
“It’s a life-changing experience,” said Wise, who went through a gifted program. “And I know personally because I’ve experienced it.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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