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Documentary Short Looks at Chicago School Closings

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A new short documentary about Chicago public schools has debuted, the second in what an unusual media collaboration says will be a half-dozen films about education in the city.

"Chicago Public Schools: Closed" is the title of the 12-minute film, which focuses on the controversial 2013 closings of some 50 schools in the nation's third-largest school system.

The film was produced by the School Project, a collaboration of the Chicago Sun-Times, the education publication Catalyst Chicago, Community Media Workship, Ebony magazine, and other partners. Teams of documentary filmmakers began following families and educators as the public debate over the closings began.

From an outside of Chicago perspective, the new film covers some of the same ground as CNN's "Chicagoland" documentary series last year—which focused in part on the protests surrounding the school closings. 

Given the close cooperation in that series between CNN and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, revealed in emails unearthed by the Chicago Tribune, one would expect the School Project's documentary to be more independent minded and come across less as a film hagiography of Emanuel.

That's largely the case. Bob Hercules and Melissa Sterne, the co-producers and directors of "Chicago Public Schools: Closed," focus on Lafayette Elementary School in the city's Humboldt Park neighborhood. It has an impressive string orchestra, but also a steadily declining enrollment, to some 470 students, fewer than half its capacity.

For the uninitiated, Chicago has what school officials say has been an "underutilization" problem with its school buildings. We do hear briefly from the mayor (in a news clip), as well as from members of Chicago's board of education, Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett, and local civic affairs types, who discuss population declines and other factors behind the underutilization.

We also hear from thoughtful parents and voices such as Linda Lutton, the award-winning education reporter of Chicago's public radio station WBEZ, for some other perspectives on the closings.

Given the School Project's design to present short documentaries, the 12 minutes for this one is over in no time. There is only a brief, thin update on some of the families and teachers highlighted. The president of Chicago's board of education says that "one year on," things couldn't be going better as a result of the closings. That is a view disputed by many in the city. (And it will be tested in the coming months as Emanuel seeks re-election.)

As one who is from the Chicago area but has been involved in covering the federal Department of Education (in one way or another) for more than two decades, I was more engaged by the first film in the School Project series. (I only discovered it with the new release.)

"Chicago Schools: The Worst in the Nation?" examines a 1987 comment by then-U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett at a sparsely attended Chicago news conference that made a very big impact. 

As the documentary details, Bennett evidently never outright labeled Chicago's schools the "worst in the nation." He uttered words along that line more in the form of a rhetorical question. But his comments were turned into that by a headline writer or two, and the  effects were longstanding. The film makes great use of archival TV footage of the era.

The School Project lists four more short documentaries to come in the next few months, on school discipline, testing, charter schools, and "effective education in neighborhood schools."

I'll be happy to set aside 10 or 12 minutes or so to watch each of those efforts.

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