Shining an Inspiring Light on Public Education in ‘Let the Little Light Shine’

Matt’s Rating: rating: 3.5 stars

A November episode of ABC’s wonderful Abbott Elementary sitcom introduced an antagonist who’s determined to transform Abbott and other Philadelphia public schools into charter schools. I kept thinking about Abbott and its embattled staff while watching Let the Little Light Shine, producer-director Kevin Shaw’s inspiring documentary for POV on PBS about a Chicago elementary school under fire.

Abbott’s unquenchably optimistic teacher Janine (Quinta Brunson) would love it.

The setting: National Teachers Academy (NTA), a high-performing (Level 1+) elementary school serving mostly Black children in the South Side’s booming “South Loop” neighborhood. It’s a model of achievement and local pride, and Shaw immerses the viewer in the daily routine of teachers and staff guiding students with acceptance and encouragement. (Banners describe the “NTA Way: Courage, Commitment, Awareness, Integrity.”)

“We’re not just a school, we’re a community,” argues a seventh-grader after NTA is targeted to be converted into an integrated high school by Chicago Public Schools — which had infamously shuttered 49 underperforming elementary schools in 2013. A neighborhood alliance representing more affluent South Loop residents hints in no uncertain terms that if they don’t get a high school to meet their needs, they’ll move out.

As this conflict escalates, eventually moving beyond the Board of Education into the courts, parents become activists, disrupting meetings to demand their kids be heard, even bringing their offspring to City Hall for a civics object lesson. “I’m OK with people seeing me as an angry Black woman,” says Elizabeth Greer, a mom who never imagined she’d become a community organizer. And it pays off when, for the first time in U.S. history, an injunction is granted in a school-closing case based on a claim of racial discrimination.

Let the Little Light Shine reminds us that when a child’s education is at stake, no one can afford to stay on the sidelines.

Let the Little Light Shine, Documentary Premiere, Monday, December 12, 10/9c, PBS

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