Each year, Spencer Elementary Technology Academy puts on College Week to get students thinking about what to do once they graduate from high school.
The week-long event — which has been held at Spencer the last decade — caught the attention of local filmmaker Derek Grace, who’s made a documentary about it. West Siders got a chance to see the film’s television debut on the World channel on June 7 and can see it for the next few months streaming online at worldchannel.org.
The film, which premiered last fall at the Black Harvest Film Festival here in Chicago, focuses on three 8th graders and their homeroom teachers as they prepare for and compete in the school’s annual College Week competition.
Grace saw an opportunity to show how a school in one of the city’s more violent neighborhoods has introduced students to college years before they graduate from high school. During the week-long event, teachers submerse their students in everything a university has to offer.
From pre-kindergarten to 8th grade, classrooms are transformed into storied institutions of higher learning where students learn about the financial cost of attendance, notable alumni, and the top sororities and fraternities on campus.
Grace took to filming before and after class, spending his own time crafting his vision of what he wanted the project to become. Since he had already become acquainted with Spencer for a couple of years at that point, students and faculty were open to the idea of being asked for an interview or being filmed around the school.
“Had I been an outsider, things might have been much different,” Grace said, noting how important it is for stories like this to be told in a community that too often gets depicted in a negative light.
“Sometimes in the news we don’t see many positive stories like this,” he said. “There are regular, normal, everyday people in this neighborhood. I wanted a positive story. So I had to do something about it.”
Shawn Jackson helped start Spencer’s College Week during his seven-year tenure as principal; he’s now chief officer of the Office of Leadership and Learning for Chicago Public Schools.
What started out as a simple bulletin board showcasing the alma mater of staff members and teachers turned into a day of activities, then a week of them.
“Understanding that some of these students didn’t have access to someone who went to college, we needed to bring the access to them,” Jackson said. “Despite a student’s immediate circumstances, we wanted Spencer to serve as an agent of change.”
State Rep. La Shawn Ford said events like College Week help students prepare for the rest of their lives.
Ford said he’d like small businesses to get involved in College Week and also to partner with state universities to hire students, showing them the value of higher education.
“I want to create a dialogue of a more career-oriented way of living,” Ford said.
Grace said he hopes his film helps inspire other schools to put the focus on higher education.
“My hope is that communities will see this film and implement a form of college week in their own schools,” Grace said. “As we go through neighborhoods like Austin and others like it across America, education is a mechanism of change. If you don’t have higher education, you are locked out of a good job or locked out, period.”