The Morton School of Excellence. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

GARFIELD PARK — There’s still time for West Side families to send their students to the new Regional Gifted Center at Morton School of Excellence.

Morton is a great local choice for parents seeking a rigorous curriculum for their students, including parents in the neighborhood who applied to other selective-enrollment schools, Principal Peggy Burnett-Wise said. Burnett-Wise and other local educators are urging parents to consider applying for the program, the first of its kind on the West Side.

While the deadline for CPS selective-enrollment selection has passed, families whose students took the selective-enrollment test can contact Chicago Public Schools or email Morton’s gifted coordinator at to add the West Side school to their list.

Last year, the district sent out preschool and elementary school offers in May.

The Pathfinders program being launched at Morton in the fall will be the first gifted center at any West Side public school in history.

RELATED: For The First Time, West Side Students Will Have A Gifted Program In Their Neighborhood

“Access to these programs have been largely nonexistent for certain people,” Burnett-Wise said. “It’s a huge gap that must be filled. And it’s a remnant of racism and inequality in the city of Chicago and the world.”

The area is full of promising and talented students who would thrive with a more rigorous curriculum, the principal said. But since the West Side has never had any gifted programs or selective-enrollment options for elementary students, many local families are unfamiliar with the process of applying, she said.

And Burnett-Wise said many parents who are familiar with the process of applying for specialized programs may not have known there is now a local option.

“You can’t miss what you never had,” said Keith Kelley, vice-chair of the Garfield Park and West Humboldt Park Community Action Council.

The Pathfinders gifted program will launch with 30 seats for kindergarten students in the fall. Another class will be added each academic year, so the program will continue through grade school, Burnett-Wise said.

Forty students have applied for the first class at Morton’s gifted center, said gifted center coordinator Rhonda Harris-Scott, but administrators hope many West Side families apply so local students will be the first to benefit from the opportunity. Next year, school leaders aim to get at least 100 applicants for the gifted center, Scott said.

Recruitment for the gifted center stumbled due to the pandemic, Scott said. The school ran social media campaigns and radio ads, sent information in neighborhood newsletters and tried to reach parents online to get them excited about the Pathfinders program. But many parents on the West Side don’t have digital devices and lack reliable internet access, which made it tough to spread the word without showcasing the school in person, she said.

Next year, there will be more opportunities for Morton to welcome West Side families to in-person open houses so parents can see the advanced resources and the quality of teachers the gifted center will offer. Scott wants neighborhood families to see “they don’t have to leave the West Side … for the same world-class education.”

“We are looking forward to next year being able to let the parents and the students see how happy and challenged our students are in the building, and how they’re their creative talents are flourishing,” Scott said.

For West Side families, “that energy, that in-person connection is so important,” Burnett-Wise said. “With our parents, they’re going to have to trust us.”

Burnett-Wise has worked with her team at Morton to develop the Pathfinders gifted center since CPS offered neighborhood schools the opportunity to apply for specialized programs in 2017. That year, the district released a comprehensive report on school quality and academic offerings across the district, and Burnett-Wise noticed that none of the city’s 28 selective enrollment elementary schools were on the West Side.

RELATED: With No Selective-Enrollment Elementary Schools On The West Side, One School Is Working To Give Gifted Local Kids A Place To Thrive

It’s critical for students to have advanced academic opportunities from a young age so they will be prepared when it’s time to apply for competitive high schools, Burnett-Wise said.

“One of the issues is that there’s no pipeline for Black children from an elementary school to these schools,” Burnett-Wise said.

Resources Will Benefit Entire School

The Pathfinders gifted center will bring an abundance of academic resources to Morton to advance the learning experience of students in the program, as well as the school at-large.

All Morton students will be able to learn French, thanks to the foreign language program that will be housed at the gifted center. Students will be also be able to practice new languages at a language lab that’s being built. Administrators chose French since the language is commonly spoken in many African countries like Cameroon and Senegal.

The school is also getting smart technology to facilitate project-based learning, exploration and a curriculum that emphasizes science, technology, engineering, art and math. The gifted center is partnering with Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development to give students opportunities for hands-on learning that nurture their skills at the university’s campus.

“We want to show that there are a lot of tremendously gifted students on the West Side of Chicago,” Burnett-Wise said. “Everything comes down to opportunity and awareness and access. …The access just isn’t there.”

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