Kevin Shaw’s documentary tells the baffling but inspiring story of a thriving Chicago public school that is nearly closed, and the parents, teachers, staff, and students who go all-in to keep it just as it is. Sitting at the intersection of Bronzeville, Chinatown, and the South Loop, the National Teachers Academy is a lightning rod for issues of race, gentrification, and the machinations of city politics. A proposal to convert the largely African American elementary school into a high school geared toward the rapidly upscaling South Loop population touches off a series of protests and actions that unites one community while highlighting continuing fissures and tensions prevalent citywide.
Shaw, who previously directed segments of Steve James’s America to Me—a miniseries set in an Oak Park high school and concerned with similar conflicts—wisely focuses on hyper-local challenges to make broader points about education and coexistence. Along the way, there are glimpses into Chicago’s past—the school opened as some of the last of the city’s high-rise projects were demolished—and into the future, with the mad pace of construction transforming the area into something longtime area residents don’t recognize but newcomers embrace. It’s a small story whose roots and branches radiate in all directions. Rather than exposing the kind of failures familiar from countless accounts about inner-city schools, this is, in some ways, an even more infuriating one about a school being punished for succeeding. It would have been easy to cast heroes and villains in black and white, but Shaw’s film shows the whole spectrum. It’s clear which side he’s on, but he makes room for those who disagree to speak, and that’s the only way a city of opposites can live on—and maybe even thrive. 86 min.