Derek Grace speaks about his film "College Week," during a screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago on Sun. August 30. | Igor Studenkov/Contributor.

For the past nine years, Austin’s Spencer Technology Academy has taken a novel approach to encouraging kids to stay in school and get into college.

At the end of each year, each homeroom in the school ‘adopts’ a college. The homerooms compete against each other, researching their college and figuring out the best way to show what they learned. At the end of the week, which is called College Fest, a panel of judges looks at their work and picks a winner.

A new documentary by Derek Grace, called “College Week” (after the contest), captured Spencer’s competition in 2013, showing the challenges and triumphs along the way. Grace served as a judge of the contest in 2011 and was so impressed by what he saw that he decided it deserved to be captured on film.

The documentary premiered on August 30 at the Gene Siskel Film Center downtown as part of the annual Black Harvest Film Festival. Grace told Austin Weekly News that “College Week” will also be screened on September 19 during the Oak Park Film Festival and it will be available on Video on Demand in October.

The film was a brainchild of Dr. Shawn Jackson, who served as Spencer’s principal until the 2014-15 school year. As he explained in the documentary, he and the teachers wanted the students to learn the importance of pursuing college education early, so that the lesson would stay with them as they move on to high school and beyond.

During each College Week, each homeroom teacher chooses a college that his or her class will focus on. The students learn about college education, in general, and about the specific college they research. The students redecorate the homerooms to fit the colleges. Spencer alumni are invited to speak to students about their experiences.

On Friday, the students give presentations about their college to judges and one winner at each grade level is announced. The week culminates with a neighborhood parade.

Jackson said many colleges are well aware of College Week. They have contributed memorabilia and the event has been profiled by several college publications.

The documentary, which ran for about an hour, focuses on the 2013 College Week, following the event from the initial preparations to that year’s 8th grade graduation ceremony. It profiles some of the teachers, students and administrators involved, getting their perspectives.

The film demonstrated how, through a combination of compassion and tough love, teachers were able to make a difference in their students’ lives and help them deal with issues.

“College Week” didn’t shy away from some of the stumbling blocks the event ran into. Shortly before the week started, an armed stand-off with the police took place right outside the school; during the school’s College Week, thieves broke into Spencer and stole some iPads; and road construction threatened to derail the annual parade. But in spite of all that, students and teachers persevered and the event went fairly smoothly.

After the documentary finished, the screening room erupted in thunderous applause. A Q&A session with Grace, Jackson and some of the teachers profiled in the documentary followed.

After the screening, audience members were invited to attend a mini college fair, which was held in the Siskel Center’s reception area. Representatives from the University of Chicago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Jackson State University, Fisk University, Chicago State University and Alabama State University were on hand to talk to kids and their parents about their programs. The mini-fair ran until 6:00 p.m.

Grace said that he was heartened by the positive response to the documentary.

“It’s exciting, it’s fulfilling,” he said. “It’s just heartening to see people ask questions. It lets me know that I did the right thing.”

Jackson expressed similar sentiments, saying that he appreciated that the audience got to see the work Spencer teachers, parents and students do.

“I’m very excited that the Spencer got the recognition it deserves,” he said.

Tracue Sanlin, Jackson’s one-time protégé and the current Spencer principal, also attended the screening. She admitted that stepping into her mentor’s shoes was intimidating, but ultimately she felt that College Week wasn’t about any one person — was about the school community as a whole.

“What people say is impossible is possible at Spencer,” said Sanlin. “We are invested in our kids, in our neighborhood.”

She said that ongoing CPS budget issues would probably leave Spencer with less to spend on College Week than ever. Nonetheless, she said she was determined to do whatever it takes to make it work and to make it the best College Week yet.

 “It’s going to be the 10th year anniversary [of the start of the program], so we’re going to go big,” said Sanlin. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to do as good as it’s been before with whatever budget we have.”

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...