With the new school year already upon us, it seems worth a look at the tricky calculus of getting into ‘the right’ kindergarten in Chicago – a process that can be almost as daunting as applying for college.
Due to expensive private schools and headlines about neighborhood schools’ low test scores, truancy and disciplinary problems, many parents consider the selective enrollment schools their only option. However, because selective enrollment spaces decrease with each successive grade level, testing into selective kindergarten may be kids’ only shot at getting into the school of their choice.
“I wanted them to be as prepared as possible to take the test,” said attorney Monique Medley, who signed her twins up for Chicago Gifted Test Prep. “I knew that they knew things, because I started early in exposing them to words, but I just felt like I needed to give them as much reinforcement as possible. I wanted them to at least have the best possible advantage.”
According to Chicago Public Schools, the majority of neighborhood elementary schools have not met the Adequate Yearly Process requirements for more than six years and are on academic probation.
Medley’s daughter was admitted to McDade Classical School, but her son was not. Rather than her own neighborhood school Gillespie, a rank three school on academic probation, she enrolled him in neighborhood school Medgar Evers. Evers is well-performing, but Medley said the difference between her children’s education was noticeable.
“He pretty much scores higher than a lot of the first graders in the class,” she said. “He doesn’t bring home the stuff that [his sister] brings home…I haven’t seen a lot of parental involvement in the classroom. [His teacher] really needs somebody there. You need either a teacher’s assistant or a parent volunteer to deal with so many kids.”
After more test prep, Medley’s son was accepted to Keller Regional Gifted Center.
“I think he should have gotten in last year, but I think he just had an off-day in math,” Medley said.
Rachel El-Amin, a social studies teacher at Whitney Young and mother of a five-year-old, said her daughter’s needs would not have been met at a neighborhood school.
“She is exceptionally bright,” El-Amin said. “When I was in…grammar school, I wasn’t challenged enough and I shut down. I didn’t do well academically and I had some behavioral problems because…I was bored in school. I do not want that to be a problem.”
Barbara Bowman, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development at Erikson Institute, said neighborhood schools are often ill-equipped to accommodate gifted children due to class size and lack of training.
“They [gifted children] certainly need an opportunity to be stimulated and really good teachers can handle children across a pretty broad spectrum of talents and capabilities,” Bowman said. “The majority of places, it doesn’t happen. Large class sizes are really very difficult to make responsive to the range of kids who come and that’s one of the reasons the parents don’t want their children to go to a neighborhood school.”
The Test Prep Debate
Unlike many parents, El-Amin did not send her daughter to a test prep agency because she believes it can be detrimental to a child’s development.
“I’ve noticed, as a teacher, that sometimes students who’ve had a lot of test-prep and drill, drill, drill don’t necessarily have elaborated critical thinking skills and you really have to push them to use their higher order thinking skills,” she said. “They can almost be paralyzed with fear of not saying the right answer.”
To avoid this indoctrination, and due to the fact CPS keep its test content secret, some test prep centers like Chicago Gifted Test Prep opt for a more holistic approach.
“My approach is to prepare a child for lifelong skills whether they’re taking the gifted admission test or not,” said CGTP founder Lemi Erinkitola. “These are skills that will become useful at some point in their life or will perhaps show up in another academic environment where it’s a high stakes test that’s presented to them.”
Sometimes, parents come to test prep for a different reason.
“If you have a child that’s very shy who has some stranger anxiety, then the test prep can help your child feel comfortable with strangers,” Erinkitola said. “You don’t want to wait until the day of the test to introduce them to the structure.”
Medley said her daughter’s shyness improved after she became more familiar with the process.
“I think it helped that [my daughter] had the experience of working with someone other than mom or grandma,” she said. “She is shy initially, but when she walked off with the proctor, she seemed confident. She wasn’t afraid, she wasn’t crying.”
But this has not stopped CPS officials from discouraging test prep.
In a 2011 Chicago Tribune article, Abigayil Joseph, head of CPS’s Office of Academic Enhancement, said test prep skews the results
“We don’t want them to come in and do well because they’ve been prepped, but then be in an environment that’s two grades above their level,” she said.
Bowman, however, said test prep at that age level likely has little effect on their results.
“College test prep is essentially yearlong,” Bowman said. “They don’t just tell you how to take the test, they teach you content. You can’t do that with four year olds. You can’t teach little kids a vocabulary list and have it be very helpful.”
Although being unable to afford test prep may not be too much of a problem, lower-income children are still disadvantaged by the selective enrollment test. Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered in a 2004 study that by the age of four, lower-income children are exposed to around 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts.
CPS’s tier system was implemented in 2011 to try to make the admissions process more fair. It sorts each Chicago address into one of four census tracts, each ranked by a combination of socioeconomic factors such family income and average achievement scores from that area. “One” is the lowest tier, while “four” is the highest. Seventy percent of seats in selective enrollment schools are equally distributed among the tiers and filled by the highest-scoring students within their respective tiers.
Although Bowman said the tier system has improved lower-income students’ chances, the real problem is the lack of preschool.
“Many of our children are in daycare centers where the teachers have a high school education or maybe two courses at the community college level. That’s all the training they have,” she said. “And yet those children are expected to compete with kids who have been to Francis Parker. It’s not going to happen.”
Instead, Bowman suggests shifting the selective enrollment test to third grade and providing standardized education from preschool until then.
“We know it works,” she said. “We know that when we put poor kids in preschool in good quality schools with highly trained teachers even in half-day programs that they come out closer to middle class kids in their school trajectory than children who don’t get put in. I think we need to stop looking for quick answers and start doing the hard work of education.”