Every year, a high-stakes gamble begins.

Parents across Chicago take their children to be tested for selective elementary schools and programs, the first step in a potentially make-or-break scenario. The district has 16 schools and programs for gifted students starting as kindergarteners—plus 10 more for older elementary students—and these schools and programs send large numbers of students on to the district’s gems: the selective high schools that invariably score at the top of the heap on state achievement tests and offer students a broad array of rigorous courses, engaging electives and enriching after-school activities.

Although the outcome is high-stakes, the scenario is not really much of a gamble. The odds are overwhelmingly in favor of children from higher-income families, who are disproportionately more likely to take the test and secure admission to gifted programs, according to an analysis in this issue of Catalyst In Depth. The trend is most apparent at the elementary level, the analysis found: Children who live in the highest-income census tracts are four times more likely to take the test for elementary gifted programs than children from the lowest-income tracts.

The analysis provides clear evidence of the opportunity gap: Lower-income children, most of them black and brown, are more likely to be shut out of the chance to attend elementary schools that offer rich curricula and would give them the best shot at gaining admission to top high schools. Students of color end up playing catch-up in a game that’s rigged against them from the start and favors students whose parents have more knowledge and financial means to give their children advantages at the starting gate.

The definition of what constitutes “giftedness” is not clear-cut, but science is clear on one point: Innate intelligence or talent is not determined by race or family income. A child living in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood is just as likely to have advanced intellectual capacity, or strong artistic or musical talent, as a child of the Gold Coast or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Too often in education, higher-income students benefit from the Lake Wobegon effect: They all end up above average, no matter where they start out.

In contrast, lower-income children are likely to fall further behind even when they start out ahead. A 2010 report, “The Achievement Trap,” analyzed data from three national longitudinal studies and found high-achieving, low-income 1st-graders were more likely to fall behind academically compared to high-achieving children from wealthier backgrounds.

Stuck in schools with meager resources and classrooms with lackluster teaching, the low-income students quickly became bored, their potential going untapped.

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Sometimes, small-scale efforts can change the equation.

Under former CEO Ron Huberman, the district was freed from a long-standing federal consent decree on desegregation. For years, the decree had maintained diversity at its most elite high schools by capping the percentage of seats awarded to white students. Once the decree was lifted, though, Huberman feared the schools would become too homogeneous and pioneered an initiative that gave 100 seats to promising students from the district’s lowest-achieving, virtually all-black elementary schools.

CPS has quietly continued Huberman’s initiative. Not every student to be offered a spot has accepted it. Not every student who accepted a spot has stayed on. Among the first group of students, now juniors, 20 percent transferred out to other schools.

The young people who persevered, despite being woefully underprepared academically, told Catalyst Chicago that their experience has been life-changing.

One young man, who chafed at the strict discipline of his elementary school, appreciates the more relaxed, creative atmosphere at Whitney Young. “I am not a bad kid,” he says. “I just don’t appreciate restrictions.”

Another young man, initially “freaked out” by the low grades he received on his first progress report, reached out to teachers for help and gave up his spot on the basketball team to devote more time to his studies. “I just thought to myself, if I try hard, I can do it,” he says.

Small-scale initiatives cannot be expected to erase broader inequities. The district is trying to level the playing field for students who end up in neighborhood high schools—offering more Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate curricula and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs. The large-scale success of these plans is still a question mark, however.

What’s not in doubt is that students—including young black men, who are too often stigmatized and stereotyped as loud, unruly and unintelligent—are eager to excel and looking for a challenge.
A chance for a good education shouldn’t be a high-stakes gamble.

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