A new documentary by a Chicago filmmaker has put the spotlight on an Austin school looking to get its students into college despite some of the trails and tribulations of the community.
A pre-screening of the film, College Week, took place last month at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy 214 N. Lavergne. Filmmaker Derek Grace, who teaches video production at Spencer, features students and teachers from the school.
About 20 community members, some with film background and some without, watched a 58-minute rough cut on Dec. 6.
As depicted in the film, Spencer Academy’s College Week emphasizes the need for children living in a struggling neighborhood to strive for excellence by furthering their education. The movie follows students in grades pre-K through eighth-grade as they participate in the 6th annual College Week of events, which occur every spring. Filming took place in 2012.
Each classroom represents a college or university, learning what it can about its admissions requirements and tuition costs, all of which are presented to judges from the community.
Although all grades participate in College Week, only the eighth grade classes compete for the title of “College Week Champions.” The three eighth-grade classes are judged on classroom presentation, as well as knowledge of their chosen university or college.
Janene Maclin, one of the three eighth-grade teachers featured in the film, attended the recent screening.
“I am extremely grateful to be a part of the project,” said Maclin, whose eighth-grade class represented the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
And although Maclin no longer works at Spencer, she said it’s particularly powerful to see the impact college week has had on the children.
“It’s one thing to be in it, it’s another thing to actually see it and to know that it works,” Maclin said.
After watching the rough cut, audience members at Spencer provided feedback. The film, one audience member remarked, made her cry because the story touched her heart on many levels.
Pemon Rami, director of educational services and public programs at the DuSable Museum of African American History, said his criticism of the film is limited.
The pacing of the film, he said, could be slowed. Additional scenes showing how teachers and administration work together to pull off College Week, Rami added, would help other schools implement similar projects.
Other than that, he described the film as enjoyable and that it serves a great purpose.
“I think that it’s an incredible opportunity for people to view the positive aspects of what happens when teachers are inspired and they share with young people in a way that encourages them to move toward a positive future,” Rami said.
Grace, who is a member of Reel Black Filmmakers, a group of Chicago-based minority filmmakers, expects to have the film completed by March, having worked on it for the past two years. According to the feedback he’s gotten so far, Grace feels he’s “on track with the storyline.”
He said he’ll do more interviews to provide insight on how teachers and administration prepare for College Week. He also plans to make the suggested technical tweaks before wrapping up post-production of the film. Hearing how the film evoked emotion in some viewers, he said, is what meant the most.
“When a couple of ladies said they cried when they saw it, that means a lot to a person who’s producing a piece like this. That means that I’m touching somebody,” said Grace, who previously produced and directed the film On The Front Line: Taking Back Our Streets. For College Week, he plans to share the film with other schools in hopes of inspiring similar programs.
“I believe all schools should have some version of a College Week. Not the whole five days, but maybe a half day, maybe two hours, maybe a day,” Grace said. “The main audience for me is public schools and underserved communities. So I would like for principals, administrators and teachers to see this project.”