Night School: Moving Film Reveals Realities of Adult Education

By Lauren Lawson-Zilai, GII’s senior director of public relations

Last October, I was fortunate to view a screening of “Night School,” a documentary by filmmaker Andrew Cohn that explores the lives of three Indianapolis-based students determined to graduate from an adult charter high school. The film premiered at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival and opened theatrically in various markets this June.

Did you know that Indianapolis has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country? And, across the United States, 30 million adults do not have a high school diploma — plus more than 3 million people drop out of high school every year. Yet a diploma can have a tremendous positive impact on someone’s life, and this cinema-style documentary follows individuals seeking that change.

It introduces us to 31-year-old Greg, a former drug dealer; 26-year-old Shynika, who is living in her car and sleeping on friends’ couches; and 52-year-old Melissa, who does not have a car and needs to pass algebra before earning  her diploma. Each student has personal reasons for dropping out of high school and for pursuing a diploma as an adult. Greg and Melissa most want to set a good example for their children and revert from the cycle of poverty that has persisted for generations.

This documentary gives a realistic face to the striking statistics I mentioned. It demonstrates the burdens and anxieties that come with living in inner-city America, and the perseverance, fortitude and determination it takes to move away from that. There are many lessons to be learned, but three I want to highlight.

First, anyone considering dropping out of high school and returning later should remember that life gets harder as you get older. Imagine going to school while working to pay your bills, caring for your child and not having a support system. Many of us deal with such challenges in our lives. In Greg’s case, he finds himself in the hospital the night before his final exam, caring for his young daughter who was just diagnosed with epilepsy. He then must go to school early the next day to take his final exam, which will determine his future. He cannot provide excuses or ask for an extension. He has no other option but to take the final at that time. Each learner in the film faces such challenges to earning their diplomas.

Next, we all have life experiences we are not proud of and have moved on from them. These unforgettable individuals are no different, and they are trying to better themselves.

Finally, the documentary tells a story of people facing real struggles. These stories are especially critical because they highlight the ever-growing obstacles faced by people who have less education, don’t have opportunities and are struggling for economic gains.

Greg, Shynika and Melissa go through things that we all have experienced in different ways. Melissa faces loneliness, Greg has made mistakes, and Shynika needs to work on her assertiveness and find her voice. They are all charismatic, highly likeable individuals, and Cohn tells the story so you can put yourself in their shoes. As a viewer, you instantly root for them. My favorite part of the evening was seeing each of them come to the stage following the screening, and the resulting emotions, compassion and empathy from the audience. I won’t tell you the ending, but I do encourage you to watch the trailer:

As background, Greg, Shynika and Melissa were enrolled at The Excel Center, an adult education charter school run by Goodwill® that provides adults with the opportunity to earn their high school diplomas as well as other recognized certifications and credentials, and begin post-secondary education while developing career paths that offer greater opportunities. The Excel Center responds to the fact that life circumstances can prevent people from continuing their high school education. As such, it offers transportation assistance, child care and flexible class schedules. First started in Indianapolis, there are now Excel Centers located in Austin, TX; Memphis, TN; and Washington, DC.

The Excel Center is another testament to how Goodwill transforms lives by empowering people to increase their independence and reach their potential through education, health and employment. I hope that you’ll view the documentary and it will continue to increase awareness and provoke positive change in the education system.

“Night School” is now available for rental or purchase on Google Play and the iTunes Store.

To read a synopsis of the film and a listing of its awards and director information, visit: IMDB.