A narrative of scarcity is at the heart of Let the Little Light Shine, a documentary directed by Kevin Shaw about the fight to keep open National Teacher’s Academy (NTA), a high-functioning, minority-serving public school in Chicago. Why, you may ask, would a school system want to close a school that is working well, and that parents, students, teachers and staff all want to remain open? Because the Chicago Public School (CPS) system wants a key resource required for the operation of that school—its building, whose desirability includes its location in the fast-growing and rapidly-gentrifying South Loop neighborhood—to open a new high school, a use which they value more than the continued operation of NTA.
That may still sound nuts, but public school systems often have to make difficult decisions. They seldom have enough resources, a lot of people make different demands on them, and they have to do the best they can with what they have. On the other hand, it does appear that the CPS have been making decisions that play favorites in a predictable way. As this film’s opening title cards inform us, in 2013, Chicago closed 49 elementary schools, the most of any city in the United States. More troubling is the fact that most of the closed schools were in non-white neighborhoods, since the presence of a school can make a big difference in whether a neighborhood thrives or declines.
Most people want their kids to go to a good school, and most kids want that for themselves. That this is not considered a basic right of every child and every family, in so rich a country as the United States, is an indictment of how little as a society we care for children in general (although we may care a lot about those within our own family). People with resources and power can see that their kids are taken care of—private schools, moving to the suburbs, places in the best public schools—while those without are likely to get the overcrowded, underfunded schools. And there’s always the possibility that if they work really hard to build something good, as did the parents of NTA (and there’s no question that the school’s current success required a lot of hard work and commitment by people from the neighborhood as well as the teachers and staff) they may find it snatched away to be allocated to a different group with greater power and resources.
The students and parents of NTA don’t want to give up their school, and Let the Little Light Shine documents their efforts to fight the proposed closure (there are a lot of scenes set in meetings), as well as featuring numerous interviews with students and parents and some observations of life in this school and the surrounding neighborhood. The result can feel diffuse, and not all the footage seems absolutely necessary, but the director’s intent seems to be to let a variety of voices be heard, and to let the viewer determine how they weigh the different testimonies. Shaw is well-prepared for this task—he was a director and cinematographer on the 2018 TV series American to Me, which followed students, teachers, and staff over the course of a year at the Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago. | Sarah Boslaugh
Let the Little Light Shine is available for home viewing in the United States as part of the the 25th Annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, which runs from 12 pm ET on April 7, 2022, through 11:59 pm ET on April 10, 2022. Further information is available through the festival web site.