From 'Medora' to 'Night School' 

click to enlarge Andrew Cohn, right, has been filming students at The Excel Center since September. After building trust with students, some have invited him to film them at home.
  • Andrew Cohn, right, has been filming students at The Excel Center since September. After building trust with students, some have invited him to film them at home.

While 88.6 percent of Indiana high school students graduated after four years of high school in 2013, the numbers weren't as good for students in Indianapolis Public Schools. Nearly one-third of IPS high school students did not graduate in four years, according to statistics from the Indiana Department of Education.

One solution for those who didn't finish is to enroll in programs like The Excel Center, which was featured on PBS Newshour in January. After director Andrew Cohn saw the news segment, he contacted the school to ask for permission to film at one of its nine central Indiana locations. The project is now taking shape as a full-length documentary, Night School.

Cohn is no stranger to filming high school students. Medora, a documentary about high school basketball players in a rural Indiana town that he co-directed with Davy Rothbart, was seen by 1.4 million viewers on PBS' Independent Lens series this Spring, and will be available on Netflix on December 1.

Cohn received approval from the Excel Center's administrators to shoot at the location in the Meadows, near 38th and Rural streets. He began meeting with and filming students in September.

click to enlarge Andrew Cohn provided these stills from the raw, unedited footage he's filmed over the last several months at The Excel Center.
  • Andrew Cohn provided these stills from the raw, unedited footage he's filmed over the last several months at The Excel Center.

"He shared some of his work, including Medora, and some of his other projects," says Brent Freeman, school director of The Excel Center's Meadows location. "We took a look at that and realized the powerful nature of telling real life stories. In most cases, our students didn't choose not to finish high school, but life happened and here they are. Our students have some pretty incredible lives. We wanted to share their day-to-day triumphs, defeats, joys, and frustrations."

"We have artists, so to speak, like Andrew and Zach, who have embedded themselves in the lives of these students to tell the story in a captivating way, and show the value of what we see, the behind the scenes of our community," says Freeman.

Freeman explains that The Excel Center does not offer GED courses, but instead provides an opportunity to students to earn a Core 40 Diploma with the same requirements as traditional high school students. Students are also required to take the End of Course Assessment exams in English and math.

Excel Center locations offer support to overcome obstacles, says Freeman, including free on-site child care, bus passes, flexible schedules and encouragement from teachers and "life coaches."

The program is free to students, and is funded by the state as a separate budget item from other K-12 education, says Freeman, adding that Goodwill Industries provides in-kind donations, such as human resources and other behind-the-scenes services that the schools need to function. Since starting in 2010, the 1,000th student is expected to graduate from the statewide network of Excel Center locations in the next month or two, adds Freeman.

click to enlarge Andrew Cohn
  • Andrew Cohn

MacArthur's stamp of approval

More than a month after Cohn started shooting, he learned that Night School had received a highly competitive grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Night School is among 15 other documentary films to receive $2 million in funding. The film's grant of $50,000 will be used to pay post-production expenses.

The film's director of photography, Zach Shields, who filmed the high school graduation in Medora, and has experience shooting travel documentaries, says that the grant "is more validation than anything else, even more important than the money. They seriously vet the people they give grants to. They want to make sure that the subject matter is important, and they have faith in Andrew to be able to tell a really good story. We both jumped into this project and we didn't expect any grants, we were still going to make this movie, but it takes the pressure off because we know other people see the value in it."

Cohn thinks it important to film both inside and outside the school.

"I want to be an advocate for adult education," says Cohn, "but I don't want to make a biased commercial. ... Most of the movie [shooting] takes place outside of the school, about 75 percent. No one wants to see if a student passes his algebra test. I have told Zach that our job is to entertain people, not to inform them. That's the challenge of filming at a school, because adult education is not something everyone will take an interest in."

And just as with Medora, it took a little while for some students to warm up to Cohn.

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