Non-traditional students get attention from Indiana filmmakers

Night School follows the stories of adult students returning to get their high school diploma


Indiana filmmakers Andrew Cohn and Zachary Shields created the documentary Night School - NUVO FILE PHOTO
  • NUVO file photo
  • Indiana filmmakers Andrew Cohn and Zachary Shields created the documentary Night School

The reasons vary why someone doesn't finish high school in the traditional timeframe, and so do the challenges for students who decide to return to their education.

Filmmakers Andrew Cohn and Zachary Shields (who is a former NUVO freelancer) discovered some of these challenges after interacting with students at the Excel Center, a public charter school near 38th and Keystone.

The Excel Center, which has locations around Central Indiana, offers adults a diploma that requires the same Core 40 curriculum and standardized tests that all Indiana high school students must meet to graduate. The Excel Center also offers courses for technical certificates, and access to coaches to guide students out of the poverty cycle.

The students who come to the Excel Center hail from no small sector of the population. Nearly 30 percent of Indianapolis Public School students did not receive their diplomas in 2015. Of the IPS students who did receive diplomas in 2015, more than 9 percent received them by waiver, meaning the student didn’t meet all of the requirements and therefore those diplomas might not carry the same weight in some circumstances.

Cohn and Shields saw the reality of these statistics and decided to make the film Night School, which was funded by a MacArthur Grant and debuted at Tribeca Film Festival in April. It will have its Indianapolis premiere at Heartland Film Festival and is a finalist in the Documentary Feature category.

One of Cohn’s struggles while filming was earning the trust of students. He is no stranger to the task. In 2013 he had to do the same thing for his film Medora — the story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team with the worst record in the state. For Night School, he again embedded himself into the subjects’ lives along with Shields. Cohn rented an apartment a few miles from the school, Cohn and Shields rode the bus with the students, they offered students rides to appointments, and the students welcomed the filmmakers into their homes.

After eight months of shooting, they had 700 hours of footage.

“We focused on the characters I thought were emblematic of what I experienced there,” says Cohn. “The students showed great courage. They had to be willing to be vulnerable to let me into their lives, the good and the bad.”

He also didn’t make the film with an agenda. “I wanted the themes to come through the characters organically.”

One of the subjects, Gregory Henson, then 30, dropped out of high school due to a checkered past. He now shares his experiences with high school students at a charter high school in Indianapolis. He says while skeptical at first, he trusted the administrator who introduced him to Cohn and respected Cohn’s work on Medora.

“My life is an open book,” Henson says. “Either you accept me for who I am or not. I knew there might be some stuff I wouldn’t want to be on camera. But before we started, [Cohn] said, ‘We need complete and total access to your life.’”

That access included going with Henson to the hospital after his then 4-year-old daughter had a seizure. It also covered the aftermath of a shooting. Between the two, they were some of the film’s most poignant scenes.

The film also features two other students: Shynika Jakes, then 26, an employee of a fast food restaurant who Cohn followed on a trip to Chicago for the “Fight for $15” movement to raise the minimum wage; and Melissa Lewis, then 53, who dropped out of school after having her first child at 14 and started at the Excel Center after she finished raising her own children.

The filmmakers and subjects will be at the Oct. 25 screening. Seven additional screenings of the movie will take place throughout the festival.

Film screenings for Night School (
Oct. 25, 7 p.m., Pike Performing Arts Center (followed by Q&A)
Oct. 26, noon, AMC Showplace Trader’s Point 12
Oct. 27, 3 p.m. and 7:45 p.m., AMC Showplace Trader’s Point 12
Oct. 28, 5:45 p.m., AMC Castleton Square 14
Oct. 29, 10 a.m. and 7:45 p.m., AMC Castleton Square 14
Oct. 30, 3:15 p.m., AMC Castleton Square 14


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