Affluent white and Asian students are more likely to participate in gifted programs, according to a recent study by One Chance Illinois. Credit: Girl against big blackboard with formulas, back view/Shutterstock

A Chicago education organization recently released research showing that students who are low-income, black or Latino are significantly under-represented in gifted programs in school districts across the state.

The “Untapped Potential” report from One Chance Illinois is in line with national studies that point to disparities in what types of students get tested for the programs. Affluent, white and Asian students are more likely to get referred by teachers—or have parents who advocate strongly for their inclusion in the programs.

“Unfortunately for disadvantaged communities, we’re seeing less likelihood of having those parental advocates to get kids tested,” says the group’s executive director, Myles Mendoza. “It’s unfair when entrance to a program is facilitated by a test that a lot of kids don’t have access to.”

For this project, the group obtained demographic data on students in gifted programs by filing public records requests with the state’s largest school districts. The group then compared those numbers with the demographics of each district as a whole.

Overall, the disparity for low-income students is more pronounced than for other subgroups. More than half the districts’ students are low-income, but only a third were in gifted programs. In four school districts, not a single low-income student was enrolled in a gifted program.

These disparities are nearly identical to those found the last time the Illinois State Board of Education reported on racial and socioeconomic demographics of students in gifted programs. That was in 2003.

In Chicago, One Chance found that the disparity for black and low-income students was lower than the state average while the disparity for Hispanic students was slightly above the state average. Close to 47 percent of Chicago students are Hispanic but just over a quarter of students in gifted programs are Hispanic.

The Chicago Public Sschools data analyzed by One Chance includes academic centers, classical schools and gifted centers but doesn’t include programs housed within regular elementary schools.

Across the country, school districts are talking about how to make access to gifted programs more equitable. Earlier this year, two researchers from Vanderbilt University analyzed federal data on 10,000 students and found that black and Hispanic students were less likely than whites to be placed in gifted programs—even when they had the same test scores.

And a recent study of Broward County (Fla.) schools found that the percentage of black students and Hispanic students receiving gifted services rose by 80 percent and 130 percent, respectively, after district officials started screening all students. The percentage of low-income students in those programs went up by a staggering 180 percent.

At the moment, One Chance Illinois isn’t pushing for a specific policy solution, such as universal screening, which the group recognizes would be costly. Only about a quarter of surveyed districts offer universal screening, and One Chance researcher Joshua Dwyer says most of those are affluent.

Mendoza hopes the report will help start a dialogue statewide about equity—without devolving into divisive politics.

“We’re trying to find ways to bring people together for solutions,” says Mendoza. “Funding for these programs, and getting more kids of color and low-income children access is probably a place where there can be agreement.”

While this is the first issue that One Chance has targeted publicly, it’s also been quietly working on another project that’s sure to draw more controversy: state tax credits for corporations that support private school scholarships, as WBEZ reported last fall.

Mendoza says he’s been talking with lawmakers and stakeholders across the state about drafting legislation but that the project is on the backburner for now. He’s quick to say that his organization shouldn’t be pigeonholed into some ideological category.

Over the past two and a half years—since Mendoza came on board from Democrats for Education Reform—Once Chance has shifted its focus from scholarships for private schools to what it calls a “sector-neutral” approach. The organization advocates for high quality education for all types of schools, including private, traditional public and charters across Illinois, he says.

Funding for One Chance comes mostly from its own board members, who include a number of Chicago investment advisors, the Rev. Corey Brooks, a South Side pastor who was a strong supporter of Gov. Bruce Rauner; and the leader of a small private school focused on social justice.

Tax records show the organization collected about $685,000 in 2014, when it was known as Educational Choice Illinois and focused on giving scholarships to low-income students who wanted to attend private schools.

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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