In 2013, 49 public schools in Chicago were closed, mostly in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. After a five-year moratorium on school closings, the Chicago Public School system was at it again. This time, the National Teacher’s Academy (NTA) was in its sights, despite it being a Level One Plus school – the highest rating available.
National Teacher’s Academy
Emmy-award winner Kevin Shaw, himself a Chicago public school graduate, spent two years behind the scenes getting to know parents, teachers, and administrators in order to document this David vs. Goliath fight. What was at stake was an outstanding elementary school serving 729 students – 80 percent of whom were Black and 76 percent low-income – becoming a K-12 school serving 1,000 students, many of whom were from new, white, and wealthier areas. What was apparent from the start was that racism, gentrification, and politics were in play.
Elizabeth Greer, Mom, Professor, and Community Organizer
In 82 minutes, Shaw gives us more than just the stats; he gives us rare insight into a Black Chicago rarely seen, but ready to fight for what is rightly theirs. Over the course of the film, college professor and mom of two, Elizabeth Greer, becomes a community organizer…reluctantly. We see her determinedly leading students, teachers, and parents to speak up at a Board meeting. Later, in a tearful moment, Elizabeth admits to realizing that many in the city think “an all-Black classroom cannot be smart.”
Audrey Johnson, Mom of 5; Employee at NTA
Audrey Johnson is a parent and an employee at NTA, who has lived in the “Low End” (South Loop) her whole life. In the school’s early days, she went door to door with the school’s first principal, Amy Rome, to meet parents and students and invite them to enroll. She was successful. Now, she is determined to keep the school and the kids where they are.
Taylor and Massiah at graduation
This resolve extends to the students as well. They are not only high achievers, but also fiercely proud of their school and acutely aware of their own power. Eighth grader Taylor Wallace, an honor student whose mom died giving birth to her, lives with her grandmother and proudly displays her motto, “dream, believe, achieve.” And Yaa, a shy fifth grader, is beginning to find her voice, with the help of Principal Isaac Castelaz. Despite being white, he has formed a unique bond with her and the rest of “his” kids. The scenes with him are particularly compelling, especially when he recounts his first year at the school and the mistakes he’d made. By the end of the film, we are made aware that if Castelaz does appear in the documentary, he will be fired.
Yaa and Principal Isaac Castelaz
In 2018, the parents, teachers, and community took their fight to court. Attorneys with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and the Legal Assistance Foundation filed a lawsuit on behalf of parents and community groups alleging that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) violated the Illinois Civil Rights Act and the Illinois School Code. While the court said that CPS had not violated the Illinois School Code, it found that CPS had, in fact, violated the Illinois Civil Rights Act. This signaled the first time in United States history that an injunction was granted in a school closing case based on a racial discrimination claim. The CPS did not try to overturn the injunction.
Unfortunately, this story is not unique to Chicago. As director Shaw says, “It is reflective of our American experience, one where Black and Brown communities still must fight for not only a seat at the table, but in this instance, an equitable place to learn.”
Let the Little Light Shine opens on August 25 at the IFC Center in New York City.
Top photo: Parents Protesting
Credit for all photos: 23 Films / Argot Pictures