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'Night School' Documentary Looks at Adults Seeking an Elusive H.S. Diploma

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Adult education programs, including programs for high school dropouts to earn a GED or diploma, are a relatively little-discussed part of the education landscape. But many K-12 districts operate such programs, and their classrooms are filled with students who have not given up hope.

Director Andrew Cohn captures this part of the education world movingly with his "Night School," an 85-minute documentary showing people whose lives have been knocked off track, but who still hold hopes of getting an elusive high school diploma. The film debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, but opens a limited theatrical release on Friday at the IFC Center in New York City.

Cohn and his crew spent the better part of a year in Indianapolis to follow three adults who attend the Excel Center, a tuition-free program for dropouts operated by Goodwill Education Initiatives, part of Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana.

Greg, in his 30s or 40s, says he dropped out of high school to "hang out" and sell drugs. He now has a young daughter and a rap sheet that includes driving without ever having had a license and other low-level crimes. He has hopes both for a diploma through the program and the expungement of his criminal record by a court, so he can get a decent job.

"I don't want a job," he says. "I need a career. I'm too old to just be working a job."

Greg's brother is the victim of a street shooting, which brings out some vengeful instincts in Greg. The brother survives and urges Greg not to pursue any retaliation and to stick to his studies. 

Melissa is in her early 50s, and her years in the inner city have taken a toll on her body but not her spirit. She works at a Goodwill store She meets a new love interest on the municipal bus and is soon bowling with him. Melissa has test anxiety and finds the Algebra I course she needs to pass particularly challenging.

The third subject is Shynika, a homeless 26-year-old who works at an Arby's and hopes to earn her high school diploma to she can become a nurse. She encounters a union organizer with the Fight for 15 movement for raising the minimum wage and after giving it some thought, throws herself into that fight. (She wonders whether the reduction of her hours and assignment of inconvenient shifts at Arby's is related to her activism.)

Cohn, the director, has told interviewers that he was inspired to do the documentary by a PBS NewsHour segment a few years ago about a 51-year-old day laborer who was going back to high school.

Cohn has said he followed more than the three subjects who ended up in the film, but only Greg, Melissa, and Shynika were 100 percent committed to being part of the film. The director moved to what he described as a very dangerous part of Indianapolis where the school is located for the better part of the year, and he was once robbed at gunpoint in his temporary home.

The film is unnarrated, and while it contains a few statistics and keen observations from some of the educators in the program, it is mostly about the daily struggle of three adults with a lot of fragility in their lives. 

And like other education documentaries of this type, there is drama at the end when it comes time to reveal which of the three, if any, have passed their courses and the end-of-course assessment required by the state. I won't reveal those outcomes here. But if you want some inspiration that it's never too late for a formal education, "Night School" is the place to go.

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