“Night School” illuminates Indianapolis’ low high school graduation rates


A new documentary by Andrew Cohn depicts life for three people in pursuit of high school diplomas. The film, “Night School” sheds light on Indianapolis’ low graduation rates and the differences between a GED/HSC and an actual high school graduation diploma.

Indianapolis’ education issues

The premise of “Night School” is that Indianapolis has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country. The graduation rate is made worse where low-income students are concerned. Low-income students’ graduation rates are 14 points lower than other students’ rates, according to the Washington Post.

The lack of education often creates a cycle of poverty. Without an education, people often have difficulty moving into career trajectories that will allow them autonomy. But, as “Night School” depicts, sometimes the powers-that-be at those low-skill, low-paying jobs make employees choose between their jobs and their education.

Individuals’ failure to earn a high school diploma affects those around them. They are often surrounded by siblings or children who look up to them.Those young relatives will take what they have learned from their loved one in terms of education. As a result, not earning a high school diploma becomes normalized.

The film exists in part because students and teachers have found out that having a GED works against them. People need actual high school diplomas.

“Night School” and its cast

“Night School” follows three students, Shynika, Greg and Melissa as they attend school, study, and in Greg’s case, take care of children. The three primary cast members range in age from 26 to 53. All are low-income. Each has barriers to success–some are mental, some are legal, some are social.

Some of the parts of “Night School” make audiences respond as they might while watching a horror movie–yelling at the screen to will those onscreen to make a different decision. That said, the characters are ones that viewers want to root for.

Melissa, at 53, is the oldest of the trio. Having been out of school for 37 years, she returned only to be hindered by her inability to pass algebra. Melissa became a mother at 14 and recalls not having much of a childhood. Her segments are the most heart-rending because she speaks candidly about loneliness.

Greg is 31. A former drug dealer, his hindsight is 20/20. He has full custody of his daughter, who is diagnosed with epilepsy in the course of the documentary. Another barrier for Greg is his criminal record. Viewers are allowed to watch Greg undergo a job interview. They are witness to the lies he tells the potential employer, and are further witness to his frustration after not getting the job.

Shynika is 26 and homeless. She struggles with her fast food job and couch surfing. Shynika recounts waiting for each friend to tell her when she can’t stay any longer. She dreams of being a nurse. Viewers are touched by her emotive reaction to failing to meet her goals by age 26.

But these are not people to pity. They are faces to a problem that isn’t just an Indianapolis problem, or even an Indiana problem. It is a problem for the United States. It seems incumbent on each community to set up solutions like night school to combat the problem of low graduation rates.

One of the approaches of the film that works well is the unobtrusive nature of the camera. The students, teachers and family members all seem to be themselves, which offers audiences a realistic look at everything from taking the bus to doing frustrating homework.

No spoilers here, but the stories are ultimately triumphs. The film provides notes at the end about each student’s academic and personal success. One critic disliked how such a big deal was made about a high school diploma. The students have dreams beyond high school. Most people can agree that without the high school diploma, students’ futures are bleak. Earning the diploma is a stepping stone to whatever dream students apply themselves to next.


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