TIt’s the moment early in Let the Light Shine, a gripping documentary about one community’s fight to save its elementary school, when it becomes clear that Chicago’s National Teachers Academy is no ordinary place.
It’s a school assembly, and the students — mostly black and brown kids from the city’s south side, from kindergarten through eighth grade — are gathering on the cafeteria benches. Two senior students perform a welcome march; the trombonist plays well, but the clarinetist squeals wildly, every note missing. You’d expect his peers to laugh – high school isn’t exactly a forgiving place. But the students are silent. When the music teacher asks the clarinetist to try again, they clap in encouragement. After another creaky run, the director takes the stage and turns a potentially embarrassing moment into a powerhouse: “It took a lot of courage for them to try and try again and persist.” The students give a standing ovation.
Their encouragement, the general camaraderie of the scene is surprising and heartwarming – a symbol of a warm community and a clear film that reflects its mosaic. Intangibly like the school assembly, and on paper, the National Teaching Academy (NTA) is an outstanding primary and secondary school. Opened in 2002, NTA has become one of Chicago’s top public schools, one of the few that has a high percentage of minorities, a high percentage of low income, and which also has the best ranking in the district. Yet despite its success — a rare beacon for black students in the Chicago public school system — the district announced in the spring of 2017 a plan to convert NTA into a high school that would serve predominantly white families who had moved to Chicago. the South Loop area. .
The National Academy of Teachers “should have been a model for public education, especially at the elementary level and especially for black and brown students,” said Kevin Shaw, the film’s director. “It should have been celebrated, not seen as closed and dismissed.”
The NTA community – students, administrators, volunteers, parents, alumni – refused to accept the plan. Let a small light shine after a remarkable movement: a group of people, part white and part black, upper middle class and underprivileged, advocating for the future of black children. Similar to Shaw’s work as director and cinematographer on Steve James’ excellent documentaries The Real City and America For Me, set over a year at the diverse Oak Park River Forest High School, the 81-minute film illuminates the country’s stratifications through a single enclave in America’s third-largest city with a memorable cast of characters. It weaves from the classroom to the district boardroom, the student kitchen to the city hall, meetings for and against the transformation of the NTA. In doing so, he delves into the complex politics of gentrification—the sanitized language of displacement, who and what is lost in the name of growth.
A rich history of school closings in Chicago looms over the NTA’s doomed demise. The show opens “Let a Little Light Shine” with a black-and-white title card: “In 2013, 49 elementary schools closed in Chicago — the largest school closing in America.” Another headline card: “Most of these closings occurred in Black and Latino neighborhoods.” The first scene is a protest outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s spacious, manicured lawn: “Keep our schools open!” Most of the closings in Chicago Public Schools occurred in schools that were deemed too under- or under-attended; NTA was neither. But it was majority black, in an area with changing demographics and some political clout in the form of the Prairie Neighborhood Alliance, formed by the South Loop’s wealthiest families to protect the local high school.
The fact that the majority-black NTA school was considered disposable and its campus more useful as a high school had clear roots in the city’s long history of racial discrimination. “There was such an ugly undercurrent to this whole conversation that an all-black class could not be intelligent. This is not an educational class. It can only be good if it’s integrated,” Elizabeth Greer, an NTA parent leader, a legacy of HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) students and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to keep the city from closing NTA, says in the film. . “You say we’re not good enough, we’re not smart.”
Shaw, a Chicago native, first heard about NTA through Greer, an elementary school classmate who posted about her fight to save the school on Facebook. Over the course of filming, Greer, who describes himself as a quiet person, becomes a destroyer; in one scene, she uses her position on the advisory committee to infiltrate high school students to make sure the board members hear from the NTA kids. Several of those students later protested City Hall and spoke to Chicago city officials, impressing South Side Chicago native and public school advocate Chance the Rapper, who appears in the film. Encouraged by the NTA’s cohesiveness and steadfastness, Chance attempts to visit the NTA, only to be blocked by Chicago Public Schools administrators without explanation.
Greer invites the audience into the campaign to save NTA, but Let the Light Shine is an ensemble film, an obvious community of administrators like Principal Isaac Castellos, whose job is constantly threatened by the district, and former Principal Amy Ream; elementary school students emphasized that they feel connected to their peers or get good grades; older students are determined to hear their love for NTA; school bastions like security guard JP, the unofficial “Mayor of the NTA,” and Audrey Johnson, a parent volunteer and staff member and vital link to the Harold Ickes public housing project that was adjacent to the school before it was demolished. “These are people who need to be lifted up,” Shaw said, “and you try to explain it to people at the district level, and sometimes it just goes in one ear and out the other, and you don’t understand the value of what’s going on because they think about the big picture of trying to get their school actions passed.”
The show contacted Chicago Public Schools about the filming, but did not hear back. So instead, he worked with NTA administrators, particularly Costelloz, who saw the film as an opportunity to preserve and share NTA’s history. The NTA community was open, but it was “very difficult” to get parents from the South Loop area to talk. “Unfortunately, this area is very stratified,” Shaw said. “People are uncomfortable talking about these things, uncomfortable talking about issues.”
His team eventually interviewed two local government agents, John Jacoby and PDNA President Tina Feldstein. Neither is overtly anti-black or anti-NTA, but their attitudes toward most black schools are revealed through euphemisms (both were interviewed by a white female producer, according to Shaw). Jacoby cites the changes at his daughter’s majority-black South Loop elementary school in the early 2000s, saying, “Once we were able to get the decor right … the kids embraced it.” A rejected plan to address overcrowding in the South Loop by sending some students to NTA called for separate check-in and check-out times, separate breaks, separate entrances — “any measure they could take to keep their kids from mixing or mixing with NTA students at all.” ” said former principal Amy Ream.
The students did not lose their motivation. As NTA eighth-grader Taylor Wallace says in one of the many scenes in which the students emotionally absorb the upheaval, “It’s the fact that they’re turning a first-level black minority school into a high school. It basically means, “I have this power.” I can take what I want and nobody does anything’, which really pisses me off.’
Greer’s lawsuit and the community’s fight to keep the NTA open eventually go to trial. The result is public information, but I don’t want to spoil it, as the film’s final scene is one of the most intense and moving I’ve seen in a while. The Chicago Public Schools Authority, which oversaw the plan to convert NTA into a high school, has since moved on; Shaw hopes the newcomer will see the film and is adamant that he is “not trying to sit here and bash and criticize the school district. They did great things. This is one area where I think they got it wrong, and a lot of people think they got it wrong.
“It’s an opportunity to learn, it’s an opportunity to grow, it’s an opportunity to heal and build our community as one.”