‘It should have been celebrated’: the fight to save a thriving Black school

·8 min read

There’s a moment early in Let the Little Light Shine, a riveting documentary on one community’s fight to preserve their grade school, when it becomes clear that Chicago’s National Teachers Academy is no ordinary place.

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It’s a school assembly, and the students – overwhelmingly Black and brown children from the city’s South Side, kindergarten through eighth grade – pack benches in the cafeteria. Two of the older students perform a welcome march; the trombonist plays fine, but the clarinetist is wildly squeaky, every note off. You would expect his peers to laugh – middle school is not renowned for being a forgiving place. But the students are quiet. When the music teacher asks the clarinetist to try again, they clap in encouragement. After another squeaky run-through, the principal takes the stage and reframes the potentially embarrassing moment into a strength: “It took a great amount 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 – emblematic of a warm community and the clear-eyed film capturing its mosaic. National Teachers Academy (NTA) is, in intangible ways like the school assembly and on paper, a standout elementary and middle school. Opened in 2002, NTA had become one of Chicago’s best public schools, one of the very few to be high-percentage minority, high-percentage low-income and also have the district’s top performance rating. Yet despite its success – a rare beacon for Black students in the Chicago public school system – the district announced, in spring 2017, a plan to transition NTA into a high school that would serve predominantly white families that had moved into Chicago’s gentrifying South Loop neighborhood.

National Teachers Academy “should have been a model for public education, especially at an elementary level and especially for Black and brown students,” said Kevin Shaw, the film’s director. “It should have been celebrated, and not thought of as being closed and discarded.”

The community at NTA – students, administrators, volunteers, parents, alumni – refused to accept that plan. Let the Little Light Shine follows a remarkable movement: a group of people, some white and some Black, upper-middle-class and low-income, advocating for Black children’s futures. Similar to Shaw’s work as a segment director and cinematographer on Steve James’s excellent Chicago-set docuseries City So Real and America To Me, which embedded for over a year in the city’s 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 classroom to district boardroom, a student’s kitchen to City Hall, meetings for the conversion of NTA and against. In doing so, it delves into the thorny politics of gentrification – the sanitized language of displacement, who and what is lost in the name of growth.

Looming over NTA’s prescribed demise was Chicago’s fraught history of school closures. Shaw opens Let the Little Light Shine with a black-and-white title card: “In 2013, 49 elementary schools were closed in Chicago – the largest mass school closing in America.” Another title card: “The majority of those closings occurred in Black and Latinx neighborhoods.” The first scene is a protest outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s spacious, manicured lawn: “keep our schools open!” Most of Chicago’s public school closures had been schools deemed too under-attended or under-performing; NTA was neither. But it was majority Black, in an area with shifting demographics and some political clout in the form of the Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance, formed by the South Loop’s most affluent families to advocate for a local high school.

The fact that NTA, a majority Black school, was seen as disposable, its campus more useful as a high school, had clear roots in the city’s long history of racial discrimination. “There was this very ugly undercurrent in this whole conversation that an all-black classroom cannot be smart. It is not an educationally viable classroom. It can only be good if it’s integrated,” Elisabeth Greer, an NTA parent leader, legacy of HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) students, and one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to prevent the city from closing NTA, says in the film. “You’re saying that we’re not good enough, we’re not smart.”

Shaw, a Chicago native, first heard of NTA through Greer, an elementary school classmate who posted about her fight to save the school on Facebook. Over the course of filming, Greer, a self-described quiet person, becomes a disruptor; in one scene, she uses her position on an advisory committee to sneak in middle school students, to make sure board members hear from NTA kids. Several of those students later protest at City Hall and speak before Chicago’s city government, impressing the South Side Chicago native and public school advocate Chance the Rapper, who appears in the film. Motivated by NTA’s cohesiveness and their steadfastness, Chance attempts to visit NTA, but is blocked by Chicago Public Schools administrators without explanation.

Greer welcomes viewers into the campaign to save NTA, but Let the Little Light Shine is an ensemble film, a clear community from administrators like the principal, Isaac Castelaz, whose job is repeatedly threatened by the district, and former principal Amy Rome; elementary school students stressed about feeling included by their peers, or getting good grades; older students determined to have their love for NTA heard; school bastions such as security guard JP, the unofficial “mayor of NTA”, and Audrey Johnson, a volunteer parent and staff member and vital link to the Harold Ickes public housing project which neighbored the school before it was demolished. “These are people who should be uplifted,” said Shaw, “and you try to explain that to folks on that district level and sometimes it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other, and not really seeing the value of what’s going on, because they’re thinking the big picture of trying to get their school action passed.”

Shaw reached out to Chicago Public Schools about filming, but did not hear back. So he instead worked with NTA administrators, particularly Castelaz, who saw the film as an opportunity to preserve and share NTA’s story. The NTA community was open, but it was “very hard” to get parents from the South Loop area to talk. “This neighborhood is very stratified, unfortunately,” said Shaw. “People don’t feel comfortable talking about these things, don’t feel comfortable talking about issues.”

Eventually, his crew worked out interviews with two local power brokers, John Jacoby and the PDNA president, Tina Feldstein. Neither present as explicitly anti-Black or anti-NTA, but their attitudes toward a majority-Black school emerge through euphemisms (both were interviewed by a white female field producer, according to Shaw). Jacoby refers to changes at South Loop Elementary, a majority-Black school that his daughter attended in the early 2000s, saying, “once we were able to institute proper decorum … the children took to it.” A discarded plan to ameliorate overcrowding at South Loop by sending some students to NTA included separate entry and exit times, separate recesses, separate entrances – “every measure that they could take where their kids would not be at all mixed or merged with the NTA students,” according to former principal Amy Rome.

The motivations weren’t lost on the students. As NTA eighth-grader Taylor Wallace puts it in one of many scenes in which the students emotionally process the upheaval: “It’s the fact that they are turning a majority-Black level one-plus school into a high school. That’s basically saying ‘I have this power. I can take what I want without anybody doing something,’ which really makes me mad.”

Greer’s lawsuit, and the community’s fight to keep NTA open, eventually goes to court. The outcome is public information, but I am loth to spoil it, as the film’s final scene is one of the most genuinely suspenseful and moving that I’ve seen in a while. The Chicago Public Schools administration that oversaw the plan to transition NTA into a high school has since turned over; Shaw is hopeful the new one will see the film, and is adamant that he’s “not trying to sit here and bash and criticize the school district. They’ve done great things. This is one area that I believe they were wrong on, and a lot of people believe they were wrong on.

“It’s an opportunity to learn, it’s an opportunity to grow, it’s an opportunity to heal and build our community as one.”

  • Let the Little Light Shine is now showing in Chicago and will open in New York on 26 August and 9 September in Los Angeles with a UK date to be announced