Putting dropouts back on track using the power of film

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Denise Zaccardi and Jack Wuest

For Angeline White, a 2011 graduate of Prologue Early College High School in Chicago, the opportunity to direct a film about being homeless changed her life.

The film, titled “Home Sweet Home,” punched her ticket to the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, held in Seattle in April. Angeline worked on the film through the Community TV Network (CTVN), a non-profit that works with former out-of-school youth to teach them to imagine themselves as smart, capable and successful individuals with the ability to tell powerful stories.

“It got me out of that afraid [mindset of] ‘I never tried it before.’ I’m better at it than I thought I would be,” she says. “It helped me find out a lot of stuff about myself as well. It got me back into my writing. It relieved a lot of stress in me.”

Angeline worked on the film with Academy for Scholastic Achievement students Brea and Mariah Lobley, who are sisters. Brea, who edited the film, earned a $32,000 scholarship to attend Minneapolis College of Art and Design this fall. Mariah, who produced the film, is now working and saving up to attend college and pursue a career in radio.

“If I never would have participated with CTVN or had video or my school, I never would have chosen film as a career option,” Brea says. “I wanted to be a psychologist. I found out that I’m really interested in film. I love the way you put it together. There’s so much creativity involved.”

Lights, camera, action …. the power of film … a good story, a strong narrative, finding your voice. That is what film can accomplish.  Working with CTVN, teens who have been dropouts become storytellers of their own lives and transform themselves into someone who can succeed in life.

Film reengages returning high school dropouts with their education, teaches job skills and boosts self-confidence in their abilities in numerous and incalculable ways. Those facts are known first-hand to the 1,600 former dropouts from Chicago Public Schools who, in the five past years, have benefited from the partnership between CTVN and the Alternative Schools Network.

Of the youth who participate, approximately 65 percent are African American and 25 percent Hispanic, with 45 percent attending college. A 2010 CTVN survey showed that 83 percent of those who completed the program said it made them feel “inspired to finish high school,” while 92 percent felt “inspired to go to college.” In addition, an evaluation in spring 2009 showed that nearly half — 42 percent — of students saw at least a 15 percent gain in literacy skills, while another 17 percent of participants saw at least a 4 percent gain during their semester working at CTVN and learning video production.

These Alternative Schools Network students have collectively produced 138 films, nine of which have won local or national awards. This spring, 475 teens from 11 Chicago alternative high schools entered 36 compelling films that debunk urban youth stereotypes into The 5th Chicago Youth Community Film Festival, titled A Reel Look at Their Neighborhoods, co-sponsored by the Alternative Schools Network and the Chicago Film Office.

The film classes have helped students graduate from high school, earn GEDs, win scholarships and personal filmmaking grants, and enter and complete college, including the University of Chicago, California Institute of the Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, Columbia College Chicago, the University of Minnesota, Howard University, and several Chicago City Colleges.

Outside the classroom, on the strength of their CTVN experience, students have landed jobs and internships at ABC-TV, Video Replay, Frey Design Productions and other video outlets.

Students also gain experience by producing the award-winning, public-access cable TV show, Hard Cover: Voices and Visions of Chicago’s Youth, now in its 25th season. The show produces a new episode every two weeks and is seen on CAN-TV Channel 19 in Chicago, Youth Channel in New York City, and on the St. Paul Neighborhood Network in St. Paul, Minn. Youth videos on CTVN’s YouTube channel, hardcoverchicago, have received 117,000 views to date.

This year’s Reel Look festival honored 12 films and their teen directors from 11 different schools, and some of the filmmakers are already drawing notice. Stephanie Lewis and Miles Johnson were members of the team that won the Global Filmmaking Challenge sponsored by Facets Multimedia and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. They also received an award at the 2012 Chicago Youth Community Film Festival honoring their achievement.

Such stories are nothing new. In 2011, “Dearborn Homes: A Dialogue,” by the Ada S. McKinley – Lakeside Academy youth film crew, was an official jury selection at the CineYouth Festival of the Chicago International Film Festival.  And two documentaries, “Dear Mom, Dear Dad” and “Our Hidden Culture” by the Academy of Scholastic Achievement film crew, were selected at the Do It Your Damn Self! National Youth Video and Film Festival in Boston.  (To see a sample reel of last year’s films, visit http://reellook.blip.tv/)

Through working with CTVN, the teens get the opportunity to think about the different aspects of a project and see it through to completion. The projects are about issues that are personal to them, and producing the films gives students a chance to talk about the issues as they write a screenplay, shoot the film, edit it and present it to the public. The power of film becomes more than story-telling. It also teaches students skills and self-confidence for life.

Denise Zaccardi is the executive director of Community TV Network. Jack Wuest is executive director of the Alternative Schools Network.