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Charles Silas and his children Cadence and Daniel in front of Johnnie Colemon Elementary Academy in West Pullman. Silas and his wife want to move the kids to a gifted school but haven’t been able to get a spot.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

The path to a CPS test-in high school often begins at age 4, with a test most don’t know exists.

Students admitted to a CPS elementary gifted program based on this test are three times more likely to get into a coveted CPS’ selective high school, a WBEZ analysis finds.

When 10-year-old Cadence Silas admits she’s bored in class and says the teacher spends too much time trying to control the kids, her dad’s jaw tightens and he looks down for a quick moment.

Charles Silas says he remembers feeling like this in school too and wants better for his children.

“They get straight As, but they are not being challenged,” Silas says of his daughter and 12-year-old son. Cadence and her brother Daniel go to Johnnie Colemon Elementary School in West Pullman on the Far South side. His youngest son is disabled and goes to a school with a special program.

Colemon is a solid neighborhood school, but performance levels range widely among students. Silas says teachers try to keep his bubbly girl and quieter son engaged, but it often seems like they are juggling too much.

“It is close to 30 kids in the class and they don’t get enough attention,” he says. “All the attention goes to the kids who need more assistance.”

Silas and his wife would like to get Cadence and Daniel into a gifted or classical elementary school. These schools offer accelerated classes, enrichment and set students up to get into the city’s elite test-in high schools, which are among the top performers in the city and among the best in the state.

But so far, they’ve yet to land a coveted spot.

Who gets into Chicago’s test-in schools has been top of mind in the city since the Board of Education late last year announced plans to take a hard look at the admissions process for these schools and prioritize neighborhood schools over schools of choice, like charters or selective enrollment test-in schools. Much attention since has been paid to how this could affect those prestigious high schools, such as Walter Payton and Northside.

But not as much attention has been focused on the schools that often feed those high schools — the district’s elementary gifted schools and programs. The district has 15 regional gifted centers and seven classical schools. These schools together enroll 4% students of CPS’ total enrollment of about 323,000 students.

These elementary schools lay the foundation for an inequity that persists into high school, a WBEZ analysis of CPS data shows. Students admitted to an elementary school with a gifted program are three times more likely to get into one of the 11 test-in high schools than students who go to non-selective neighborhood schools, WBEZ found. These students not only get an advanced education, but they are also set up for a more advanced high school experience.

Students admitted to a CPS elementary school with a gifted program are three times more likely to get into one of the 11 test-in high schools than students who go to neighborhood schools.

And it starts with a flawed admissions process that gives a high-stakes test to four-year-olds.

Chicago Public Schools refuses to produce data that would reveal how many students can access these gifted programs and their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. The district said providing the demographics for gifted programs within schools would entail creating a new database, which it is not required to do. Nine of the regional gifted centers are in elementary schools that also have neighborhood or magnet programs.

But using demographic and admission data, WBEZ finds that only 3% of CPS’ low-income elementary school students were enrolled in these gifted programs last school year. Some 3% of Latino students and 5% of Black elementary school students were in these classes. That compares to 12% of white students and nearly 14% of Asian elementary school students enrolled in these gifted programs.

If these disparities aren’t eliminated, “we will continue to squander the powerful potential of too many truly gifted students of color and students from low-income families — not because they couldn’t handle the challenge, but because we never gave them the opportunity to even try,” Lillian Lowery, the late vice president of the Education Trust, wrote in The 74, an education news website, in 2018.

Disparities in gifted programs are seen across the nation, said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a think tank that advocates for school choice, and a visiting fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Center.

“We need to do a much better job of building a wider, more diverse pipeline of advanced learners starting as early as possible,” he said. “If all you do is wait until it’s time for the admissions process in eighth grade to decide who gets into these high schools, it’s too late, because in most places, you already have an enormous achievement gap.”

“The outcome is completely predictable”

Silas lives in West Pullman, in an area that is mostly low-income, but has pockets of middle class families in affordable homes. Though Silas and his wife have intense work schedules, they make every school assembly and all sports games.

When Silas’ son was ready for kindergarten, he and his wife knew he was bright. They didn’t want him at the school down their block because it had low test scores.

As someone who attended CPS schools, he knew there were gifted programs. But he didn’t know that children could get tested at age four, almost a year before starting school.

“That information should be somewhere big on CPS’ website,” Silas says. “If I would have known, I would have definitely had them tested.”

The reasons for the disparities in access to CPS’ gifted programs are varied and complex, but one stands out: Performance on just one test determines whether a child earns a seat — and few students ever take the exam.

That’s because the onus is on parents to sign up to take their child to a single testing site in the fall prior to the school year in which they are seeking admission. The greatest number of seats are available for kindergarten.

Experts agree this is the worst way to assess students for gifted education, says Scott Peters, senior research scientist at NWEA, which creates student assessments. He previously researched gifted education as a professor.

“A single data point in time, especially if it requires any kind of family initiative, where I have to go out of my way to sign my kid up, or take him or her to a testing center on a testing date, was a really common and really bad practice,” Peters says, noting that most school district have abandoned this, including New York City.

Testing nearly a year before a child enters kindergarten is especially unfair because it requires parents to have knowledge of the system even before officially becoming part of it.

“It’s hard to design a practice that was going to be more inequitable in its outcomes,” Peters says. The outcome is “completely predictable.”

Data bears this out. Overall, just 9% of incoming kindergarteners get tested and 4-year-olds in the poorest, majority Black and Latino ZIP codes rarely get tested.

Just 1% of incoming kindergarteners were tested in the ZIP code that includes most of West Englewood on the South Side. It was the same in the West Side ZIP code that includes West Garfield Park and parts of East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park and North Lawndale.

Meanwhile, a quarter of incoming kindergarteners in the more affluent and white North Side ZIP code that includes Lincoln Park were tested and nearly half were tested in a ZIP code that includes part of the affluent South Loop.

Even parents who get their children tested question it.

Melissa Trini Alvarado de Leon says it took a lot of coaxing to get her four-year-old son to go with a stranger when he was tested. At the testing site, she walked to the door with him and watched as he went down the hall.

“Just to reinforce that I am still here. I am not leaving,” she says.

Fifteen minutes later, he reappeared and when she asked him what happened, he said he didn’t remember.

“It is not a very long test, so they have to shine right away or else they will not get in,” Alvarado de Leon says. “It is a lot to ask of a four year old.”

The test measures “critical thinking skills, reasoning, problem solving, and mental control, which is the ability to hold information in the short-term memory while performing a mental operation,” according to CPS. The test for classical schools measures reading and writing ability.

Alvarado de Leon grew up in Chicago and knew about the gifted programs. But she says a lot of the immigrants who live in her Logan Square neighborhood don’t know. And some of them wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving their four-year-old with a stranger to get tested.

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Melissa Trini Alvarado de Leon took her four-year-old to get tested for a CPS gifted program but she had reservations about the testing and knows some parents wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving their four-year-old with a stranger to take the exam.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Alternatives to one exam for gifted admissions

The Illinois Association for Gifted Children and many experts urge school districts to use multiple measures to identify students for gifted education.

They also say school districts should consider universal testing. When one unnamed district that researchers describe as one of the country’s largest and most diverse tested all second graders — rather than only ones recommended by parents or teachers — the number of students identified as gifted increased and the newly-identified students were disproportionately low income and Black or Latino, according to a 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Illinois has not provided specific funding for gifted programs for more than 20 years and, according to the Illinois Association of Gifted Children, there has been a substantial decrease in programs during that time.

In recent years, the association has focused on making sure gifted students can receive accelerated education in their home schools. A 2018 law required districts to lay out policies for how students can skip ahead in a subject or whole grade.

This is another area where low-income Black and Latino students in Chicago Public Schools aren’t getting the same opportunity. Only six of the 82 students who skipped a grade or subject in 2022 and 2023 went to schools with a majority of low income students and only nine went to schools with majority Black or Latino students, according to a WBEZ analysis of CPS data.

In defense of selective schools

Many CPS parents came out this year to passionately defend selective and gifted schools as the mayor and CPS officials said they were prioritizing neighborhood schools. They worry that without these schools their bright children will get lost in neighborhood schools that are often already juggling students with many needs.

Even the suggestion that the Board of Education was going to consider changes to the admission policies of these schools was highly controversial. It spurred a bill that almost passed the spring legislative session.

Some parents and students accused the board of threatening to close these prized schools. One little girl spoke at a board meeting, flanked by her dad, telling board members, “Now I hear you want to take away my school entirely … the school that is regularly rated the number one school in all of Illinois. I think that sounds stupid enough to make a point by itself.”

She said she went for a time to her neighborhood school, but was so unhappy with the instruction that her parents allowed her to transfer back to the gifted school — even though it meant driving her three hours a day.

Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson and the board have doubled down on the importance of these schools, stressing they will not close them.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson has said he wants to make Chicago’s selective enrollment schools more accessible and equitable. He and the Chicago Board of Education have also stressed their importance and have said they have no plans to close any of the 11 schools.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Students and parents point out that these schools are not only among the most highly ranked schools in the city, but are among the relatively few islands of integration in an otherwise highly segregated system.

Many of them were actually started under Chicago’s desegregation consent decree, which required the district to implement voluntary integration programs. Many selective enrollment and magnet schools were created with the expressed purpose of enticing white families, many of whom had fled the system, to send their children to CPS. That integration order was lifted in 2009, but the school district still has an admission policy that tries to diversify these schools by socioeconomic status.

Over the years, CPS has added classical and gifted centers in Black and Latino neighborhoods to give students equal opportunities and in response to community demand. At times, these programs were also used to spur enrollment in schools losing population, including the one where Alvarado de Leon’s son goes. It’s one of three regional gifted centers for students learning English.

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Pulaski International School in the Bucktown neighborhood has a gifted program for students learning English.

Manuel Martinez/Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Twenty years ago, the Bucktown school had more than 1,100 mostly low-income Latino students. Then, as the neighborhood gentrified, it lost enrollment, which opened up space to add the gifted center and an advanced International Baccalaureate program.

Today, it’s still trying to build enrollment, but the more affluent families in the neighborhood now see it as an option. About half of the students are Latino and only 40% are low income.

Alvarado de Leon was relieved and excited when her oldest son was offered a spot, as his first language is Spanish.

These special programs are sought after, indicating the pent-up demand.

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Charles Silas thinks Chicago Public Schools could do better by his children. He likes their current school but continues to try to get his children into a gifted elementary program because he thinks they aren’t being challenged enough.

Manuel Martinez/WBEZ

Charles Silas also wants these programs to continue, as he is skeptical that even strong neighborhood schools will ever be able to support above average students.

Silas stresses that his family generally likes Colemon. It’s got a lot going for it — low student mobility, low teacher absences, average test scores and a principal at the helm for more than six years.

Cadence is particularly excited about learning guitar. Daniel was in algebra last year as a sixth grader.

But Silas says he still can’t help but feel they are just skating by. He had Daniel tested for a gifted program in third grade, but he didn’t get a spot. Now, he is vying to send him to an accelerated 7th and 8th grade program.

He got into one in a neighborhood high school, but Silas and his wife really hope he’ll get off the waitlist for Brooks College Prep. Brooks is one of CPS’ 11 selective enrollment high schools and students in its 7th and 8th grade academic center are guaranteed a seat in the high school.

Silas says it is stressful for a family like his to navigate the system.

In a recent poll, he gave Chicago Public Schools a C. He doesn’t think his children are being failed completely, but he also doesn’t feel they are getting access to the best education possible.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on X @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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