There’s a moment early in Let the Little Light Shine, a riveting documentary about one community’s fight to preserve their elementary school, when it becomes clear that Chicago’s National Teachers Academy is no ordinary place.
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 carry out a welcome march; the trombonist plays fine, but the clarinetist is wildly creaky, every note off. You expect his peers to laugh – middle school is not known 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 creaking run-through, the principal takes the stage and transforms the potentially embarrassing moment into a strength: “It took a lot of courage for them to try and try again and keep going.” The students give a standing ovation.
Their encouragement, the general camaraderie of the scene, is surprising and heartwarming—symbolic of a warm community and the clear-eyed film that captures its mosaic. The National Teachers Academy (NTA) is, in intangible ways such as the school assembly and on paper, a prominent primary and secondary school. Opened in 2002, NTA had become one of Chicago’s top public schools, one of the very few that was high-minority, high-low-income and also had the district’s best performance rating. Despite its success—a rare beacon for black students in Chicago’s public school system—the district announced in spring 2017 a plan to transition NTA into a high school that would serve predominantly white families who had moved into Chicago’s gentrifying South Loop neighborhood.
The National Teachers Academy “should be a model for public education, especially at the K-12 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 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 the future of black children. Like Shaw’s work as segment director and cinematographer on Steve James’ excellent Chicago docs City So Real and America To Me, which for over a year were embedded in the city’s diverse Oak Park River Forest High School, the 81-minute film illuminates the country’s layers through a single enclave in America’s third largest city, with a memorable cast. It weaves from classrooms to district boardrooms, a student kitchen to the town hall, meetings for the conversion of NTA and courage. 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.
Above the NTA’s prescribed death was Chicago’s hectic history of school closings. Shaw opens Let the Little Light Shine with a black-and-white title card: “In 2013, 49 elementary schools closed in Chicago—the largest mass school closing in America.” Another title card: “The majority of these 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 closings had been schools deemed under-attended or underperforming; NTA was neither. But it was majority Black, in an area with changing demographics and some political influence 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, the campus more useful as a high school, had clear roots in the city’s long history of racial discrimination. “There was a very ugly undercurrent in this whole conversation that an all-black classroom can’t be smart. It’s not an educationally viable classroom. It can only be good if it’s integrated,” says Elisabeth Greer, an NTA parent leader, legacy HBCU -students (historically black colleges and universities), and one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to stop the city from closing the NTA, 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. During filming, Greer, a self-described quiet person, becomes a troublemaker; in one scene, she uses her position on an advisory committee to sneak in middle school students, to ensure board members hear from NTA kids. Several of these students later protest at City Hall and speak before the Chicago City Council, impressing South Side Chicago native and public school advocate Chance the Rapper, who appears in the film. Motivated by the NTA’s unity and their steadfastness, Chance attempts to visit the 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 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 get their love for NTA heard; school bastions such as security guard JP, the unofficial “Mayor of the NTA”, and Audrey Johnson, a parent volunteer and employee and key link to the Harold Ickes public housing project that was next door to the school before it was demolished. “These are people who should be uplifted,” Shaw said, “and you try to explain that to people at that district level and sometimes it’s just going to go in one ear and out the other and not really see the value of what’s going on, because they’re thinking about the big picture of trying to get their school action passed.”
Shaw contacted 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 history. The NTA community was open, but it was “very difficult” to get parents from the South Loop area to talk. “This neighborhood is very stratified, unfortunately,” Shaw said. “People don’t feel comfortable talking about these things, don’t feel comfortable talking about issues.”
Eventually, his crew prepared 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). Referring to changes at South Loop Elementary, a majority-black school his daughter attended in the early 2000s, Jacoby said, “when we were able to implement proper decorum… the kids took to it.” A scrapped plan to alleviate overcrowding at the South Loop by sending some students to NTA included separate entry and exit times, separate recesses, separate entrances — “any measures they could take where their kids wouldn’t be at all mixed or lumped together with the NTA students,” according to former principal Amy Rome.
The motivation was not lost on the students. As NTA eighth-grader Taylor Wallace puts it in one of many scenes where students emotionally process the upheaval: “It’s the fact that they’re turning a majority-black level one-plus school into a high school. It’s basically saying ‘I have this power. I can take whatever I want without anyone doing anything, which really pisses me off.”
Greer’s lawsuit, and the community’s fight to keep the NTA open, eventually goes to court. The result is public information, but I’m willing to spoil it, as the film’s final scene is one of the most genuinely exciting and moving I’ve seen in a while. The Chicago Public Schools administration that oversaw the plan to transition NTA into a high school has since reversed course; Shaw hopes the newcomer will see the film, and is adamant that he is “not trying to sit here bashing and criticizing the school district. They have done great things. This is one area that I think they got 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.”