Let The Little Light Shine, a documentary film that follows the fight to save National Teachers Academy (NTA), a Chicago Public School (CPS) in the South Loop, will premiere in the city on Saturday, May 21 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The film was directed and produced by Chicago native Kevin Shaw. 

In February 2018, the Chicago Board of Education voted to phase out the high-performing majority-Black elementary school and replace it with a new CPS high school. At that time, the board said the new high school was necessary for the growing population in the area. It was slated to open in the fall of 2019, but that never came to fruition.

The board’s decision pushed the school community to fight to save their school from following the controversial fate of 49 elementary schools and one high school on the South and West sides shuttered between 2013 and 2014 during Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s tenure. 

That year, Shaw started seeing the news about NTA and social media posts about the board’s plan from Elisabeth Greer, his elementary school classmate. She was one of many active NTA parents pushing back against the board’s plan, and is also featured in the film. 

Shaw reconnected with Greer, learned more about NTA, met and got to know community stakeholders, and later began to document their efforts to save NTA. 

“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,” Shaw told The TRiiBE on May 18.  

Shaw was also inspired by Greer and others organizing to save NTA. So in part, he also wanted to encourage viewers to recognize and step into their power. 

“I wanted to also look at this idea of just an average everyday citizen, a person kind of stepping into their power, and finding their voice and fighting the good fight and fighting force for social justice,” Shaw said. “[Elisabeth] was just an average everyday parent who, as she says in the movie now, was angry about something and wanted to stand up and say something about it.”

Four families, including Greer from NTA, sued CPS and the Board of Education in June 2018. In their suit, they argued that the school district was “bowing to pressure from wealthy interests in the South Loop,” that CPS’ decision violated the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003 and that phasing out the school would “displace and destroy a vibrant and successful school community and needlessly disrupt the educational experience of NTA students.” 

By the end of 2018, a judge ruled in favor of NTA’s school community. Cook County Judge Frank Valderrama granted an injunction pausing CPS’ plans to turn the campus into a new high school. CPS said that it would not appeal the judge’s decision, which ended its plans to turn NTA into a high school.

Let The Little Light Shine has been on the film festival circuit since its world premiere this year at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Mo. It was an official selection for the 2022 SXSW EDU Conference and Festival in Austin, Texas, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, N.C., and the Doc 10 Film Festival in Chicago, which kicked off on May 19. 

The TRiiBE caught up with Shaw ahead of the film’s Chicago premiere on Saturday, May 21. After the film, Shaw, the film’s producer Rachel Dickson, Greer, and other castmates will have a Q&A moderated by Chicago author and poet Eve L. Ewing. 

Though tickets for Saturday’s screening are sold out, Shaw said more screenings would be available at the Siskel Film Center beginning Aug. 12, 2022. Let The Little Light Shine will also air nationally on PBS’ POV on Dec. 12, 2022. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

In what ways did Chicago’s mass school closure influence Let The Little Light Shine?

KS: The first statement that’s made in the film is a title card that specifically brings up the 2013 closing and brings up the fact that the majority of those closures were in Black and brown communities. So there’s no doubt that that had an incredible impact on me, and certainly impacted the families at NTA, that we’re fighting to save their school. 

I don’t think many people think about what happens when a school does close. Schools are more than just educational institutions for the neighborhood; they are a community and a family.  So when that place is shut down, that family is displaced, that family is gone. So those students and families now have to try to find another place to go to and integrate themselves into another institution and that doesn’t always happen easily. 

You know, there was a famous report that the University of Chicago had written that looked at the 2013 school closings and saw the negative impact that it had on families and students in terms of test scores in terms of social-emotional learning, in terms of, you know, trying to just integrate with a new school community. So these were things that were being brought up again by the NTA community as they were trying to save their school. 

(Reporter’s note: About the University of Chicago report Shaw referenced. A 2018 UChicago Consortium on Chicago School Research report found that “students affected by school closures experienced negative learning effects, especially students from closed schools” and that the school closures severed “longstanding social connections” between the school, administrators, staff, families and students.)

We saw parents at Dyett High School also successfully save their school. In this case, NTA was successful in keeping their school open. What message do you hope viewers walk away with after seeing the success of the NTA school community in Let The Little Light Shine?

KS: It’s never a done deal. When these administrators and sometimes in the media say that this deal is going up through these levels of communication, it’s gone through the Board of Education and what have you, or they’re voting on it and making it policy. It’s never a done deal. You can still fight these things. You need to be organized, come at it with one voice, and have great counsel. I believe here in the city that there are enough leaders in terms of activism to provide advice for free for people who are looking for it. 

You can always continue to fight back. You just need to step into your voice. We all have a voice, power, and a little bit of activism in ourselves when fighting for social justice. So it’s about recognizing that and stepping into that power collectively because it can be scary to do it yourself. But if you can step into that power collectively with other people, and you’re all on the same page and moving together, you can move mountains.

(Reporter’s note: In 2015, 12 parents and activists went on a 34-day hunger strike to demand that CPS reopen Dyett High School, which was closed in 2015. CPS reopened it in 2016 as Dyett High School for the Arts with a new class of freshmen students).

We’re a few days away from the film’s Chicago premiere. Can you tell me how it feels to be showing this film in your hometown and what you’re looking forward to most?

KS: I feel like it was a story that I don’t want to say was dismissed, but it was kind of under the radar. There are people in the city that didn’t even know this happened. So those folks now get an opportunity to see what occurred in their own backyard and realize that these issues are still going on in our city. We need to do better together. That’s what I’m looking forward to that opportunity for that dialogue. 

There’s an entirely new administration in CPS at the Board of Education. They’re entirely new people there. This is an opportunity for them to sit there and learn again, about what happened at NTA? What happened in this community? What were the things that were the myths, maybe the missteps, and also the things that they didn’t hear from the community? So that when you’re talking about reimagining neighborhood schools again, you won’t sit and make the same mistakes twice. This is an opportunity for everybody to grow, to learn, and to make sure you have that not only NTA, but any community here in the city, not only in the city but in the nation that is dealing with these issues that they don’t have to deal with this kind of stuff.

These folks that fought for NTA are true heroes. They’re superheroes. We talk a lot about superheroes in movies, Marvel movies, or whatever. We got some real-life superheroes here. That’s the folks from NTA. The students are also important to this story. They were big, strong voices and fought to save their school. Today, they’re graduating high school and moving on to college, and so in thinking about them having this life experience under their belt, they know that they can do whatever they want in the world with the right effort about it. They can step into their power and accomplish anything. So I’m looking forward to that message being conveyed to our youth. 

For more information about Let The Little Light Shine, visit the film’s website

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.