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Black filmmaker brings neighborhood school battle to the big screen

by Tanesha Peeples
Black filmmaker brings neighborhood school battle to the big screen
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When we look at school districts around the country, public education has become more about politics and less about students and families. Increasingly, parents have found themselves barricaded outside of the ring, while the various players in the system duke it out over a political power struggle. And it’s gotten old. 

A group of parents in Chicago weren’t having it and formed the advocacy group We Are NTA when their elementary school was in danger of being closed by Chicago Public Schools. Their story is now being told on the big screen in a film called, Let The Little Light Shine.

The story begins with the Chicago Public School Board voting to phase out National Teachers Academy and reopen it as a high school in 2019. At the time, NTA was a K-8, Level 1+ performing school in the South Loop community whose student population is 80 percent low-income. 

 

New film from Black filmmaker highlights fight to save Chicago school

In a statement provided to the Chicago Tribune, Elisabeth Greer, NTA’s local school council chairwoman, said, “The process has not been transparent or fair to the NTA community. We demand to be engaged in a fair and open discussion about our school.” But despite desperate efforts from staff, community members and parents, NTA was still at risk of being closed and ultimately converted into a high school. 

In an interview with TRiiBE, film director and Chicago native, Kevin Shaw, said, “Here’s this story about a high-performing school with a majority African-American population that should be a model for public education, especially at the elementary school level. But instead, there’s this proposal to close it down and change it to benefit some other people in the neighborhood. That just didn’t make sense. So, I wanted to investigate that,”.  

The parents, students, teachers and community members and even Chance the Rapper began an advocacy campaign that fought CPS and the other communities seeking to turn the elementary school into a high school. After a year of organizing, advocacy and legal battles, not only did they win a court injunction granting a reversal of the closing but CPS completely abandoned plans to convert the school. 

“Let The Light Shine”

Despite this success story, overall we’ve seen more than 50 schools in predominantly Black and Brown communities close in the last decade, a consistent exodus of Black teachers from the district —not to mention the persistent and underlying issue of deficient teacher diversity—and Black and Brown communities used as pawns in an ongoing political battle between CPS, CTU, city hall and education reform organizations. 

Let The Little Light Shine doesn’t spotlight the messy history of politics and education in Chicago as many films have done in the past. Instead, it centers the NTA families and supporters–seeking to intimately connect the viewers to the NTA community to better convey why they had to fight. 

Shaw told the Chicago Tribune,  “My biggest fear was making a movie that was only about the fight to keep a school open.” He wanted the footage to “sit with these people when it made sense, and get to know the community on screen, and understand where they’re coming from,”.

The inclusion of scenes such as a fifth grade NTA student known as Yaa, in meetings with then-principal Castelaz, don’t cut to the chase; they unfold gradually, revealing a lesson in “how a fifth grader can develop a good, healthy, mentoring relationship with an educator.”

Let The Little Light Shine will premiere this weekend in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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