For the first time, Chicago Public Schools will allow gifted children to enter kindergarten early and to skip grades in one or more subjects. 

The new policy on early entrance to kindergarten will go into effect for the coming school year.

Until now, children who turn 5 by Sept. 1 have been able to enroll in kindergarten that year. With the new policy approved this week by the school board, a child who will turn 5 from Sept. 2 to Dec. 31 may apply for early entrance to kindergarten, if the child has completed a year of preschool. 

The new school board passed the gifted policy at its first meeting Wednesday by a vote of 6 to 0. Luisiana Melendez, a former kindergarten teacher and early childhood expert at the Erikson Institute, abstained.

“I was a kindergarten teacher for many years, and my concern is that although cognitive exceptionality and academic achievement are important, there is also a big piece of social and emotional development,” Melendez said during discussion. “This is asking a child that is not yet 5 years old to enter into kindergarten with children that are almost 6 years old.”

Anna Alvarado, the chief officer of teaching and learning at the district, emphasized that administrators will implement developmental as well as cognitive testing during the vetting process. 

Parents can now complete the pen-and-paper application form at district locations across the city. In July, administrators will start vetting children with a developmental survey and a test of academic achievement. Students will have to reach the 91st percentile or higher on both measures to be considered, and Chicago Public Schools psychologists will also screen them to ensure they are ready to enter kindergarten.

The district aims to complete assessments and send out notifications to parents and principals in August. 

However, Eric Calvert, associate director of the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University, criticized the new provisions. He said the district made a “conscious choice” to limit the number of students who can be accelerated, potentially deterring students from disadvantaged backgrounds from applying. 

“We’d at least like there to be more intentional outreach for families of low-income students, families of minority students… so that families that have bright kids that would benefit from this aren’t needlessly excluded from even starting the process,” he said. 

Calvert also noted there is a fee associated with the application process, and though the district has waivers upon request, he said they could be more transparent about the cost. 

A new Illinois state law, known as the Accelerated Placement Act, requires that districts create a policy for gifted students, although Chicago Public Schools opposed the requirement, according to Chief Executive Officer Janice Jackson.

The law went into effect last July, so the district has been out of compliance for almost a year, Calvert said. 

Independent of the new gifted policy, schools offer parents the option to test elementary children for placement in gifted and classical programs, but there aren’t enough seats for every child who qualifies, and not every neighborhood has a school offering those programs. The district also grants early admittance to first grade, but not to kindergarten.

The new policy applies across the board, enabling grade skipping in grades 3 to 6 and single-subject acceleration in grades 3 to 7.  However, grade-level acceleration will not go into effect until the vetting process starts in January for the 2020-21 school year. 

Although the law requires having a gifted policy, the state doesn’t provide funding for it. District administrators estimate implementation will cost about $1 million, with about 2,000 students eligible to apply for early entrance to kindergarten. 

Still, Calvert said acceleration is one of the most cost-efficient ways to help gifted children, keeping them in their local school setting. Gifted students do best when their needs are met early on, he said. 

Prior to the state law, about 55% of Illinois districts lacked policies allowing early entrance to kindergarten and first grade and 46% lacked policies for accelerating students in specific subjects. Only one in 10 allowed kids to skip a grade, according to a study by the Illinois Association for Gifted Children and the Untapped Potential Project.

Nathan Hoffman, policy and research director at Empower Illinois, a scholarship foundation for low-income students, expressed concern about the district’s new policy. He emphasized the need for a universal screener for students, so schools can identify gifted students without referrals from parents. 

“This is a step in the right direction,” Hoffman said. “It’s definitely nowhere near where we’d ultimately like it to be, and that’s not just CPS, that’s statewide. I think we’d like it to be a lot more comprehensive and truly more reflective in meeting kids where they’re at with their academic ability.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the name of the state law that requires districts to draft a policy for gifted students.