In late 2014, Vice aired Last Chance High, a documentary about the Near West Side’s Moses Montefiore Academy—at the time, CPS’s only elementary school for special-needs students. About a year later, CPS announced that it was closing Montefiore; this March, the lot was sold to the Urban Prairie Waldorf School. When they found out that the school might close, Last Chance High directors Craig and Brent Renaud returned to Chicago, where they began to film a sequel to the 2014 series.
Chicago spoke with Craig Renaud—Brent, his brother, was in Mogadishu, working on another project about East African militant group Al-Shabaab—about what they found when they came back to the story of the school and the people who had been a part of it. The series premiered Tuesday and will air weekly.
What led you to revisit the story of Montefiore?
When we were making the first series, there were a lot of rumors that the school might eventually close because attendance had been dwindling for a while. We heard it being discussed by the staff as something they were nervous about. Reverend Hood, one of the local school council members and main characters from the series, let us know about the public hearings going on [in late 2015 and early 2016]. He also told us that none of the parents knew about them. So we picked up the camera and followed him to one of those hearings. And then we decided to pick back up and see what happened to the original kids after the school closed.
When you returned to the students from the school a few years later, what did you tend to find?
Many of the main kids we had followed from the first series and picked back up with, like Cortez and Keontay, were actually not doing very well. Cortez was getting death threats. Keontay had been shot on three different occasions by over a dozen bullets and managed to survive. He’s deeply involved in gang wars at this point. Six of his friends have been killed, and another one of them is paralyzed from the neck down. His mother has lupus and has been battling that—she’s very sick, she’s in a wheelchair.
I think of myself back when I was 15 or 16 years old and some of the stupid stuff I did. You think you’re invincible as a 15-year-old. Most of the kids that Keontay is fighting with are the same kids he grew up with: These are kids who went to grade school together, they’ve been in each other’s homes. And one of the things Keontay says is, I might decide to quit and start being positive, and I’m gonna be walking down the block, and these guys aren’t gonna forget about it and they’re gonna kill me. And we saw it happen during the filming: he was walking down the street, and somebody drove by and spotted him. They opened fire and he got shot again.
What are the former staff members doing now?
Coach Williams was probably one of the most popular people in the viewers’ minds from the first series. Staff members like him tend to get very involved with these kids. The students at Montefiore were special needs students, and Coach Williams had always said to us that these kids required more than just showing up to school and trying to teach. In the original series, he and his wife talk about how, when he goes home at night, he dreams about these kids. And it broke my heart to come back and pick up with him. After 17 years working in the school system, they just cut him loose—they closed Montefiore and cut him loose.
I did an interview with [the student] Cortez recently, where he said Montefiore was the one time he felt like he was doing okay and people were checking in on him. And he talked so highly about people like Coach Williams. Now Williams is laid off, no job, he’s burned through all of his savings. And still, he’s been talking about trying to figure out some sort of way to raise funding to do something. He said he’ll bump into former students all the time on the West Side. He’s just constantly learning about another kid getting shot. And it’s obvious when you watch him with those kids how much he loved and cared about them.
Is there any room for optimism in this situation?
You certainly see the uphill battle. I never want to say nothing is hopeful, but with those particular kids it’s very easy to take a pessimistic view. My son has autism and gets a tremendous amount of therapy, and I can only imagine what it would be like if he grew up in a situation where he didn’t have the resources or the funding to help with his behavioral stuff.
I’ve had a lot of conversations with Derek Brown, who runs a grassroots organization out of the garage of his house. [In Last Chance High, he visited Montefiore to work with the students.] He tries to keep up with as many kids in North Lawndale as he can. You’ll catch him on some days where he’s very optimistic, and you’ll catch him on some days where he’s completely burned out. He’ll just be like, “Man, some days I just don’t know what to do with all these kids.” It’s heartbreaking, and it’s hard to not be pessimistic when you have these deep conversations with people like Coach Williams and Derek Brown. They’re very concerned about the lack of hope with these younger kids, and how willing all these kids are to pick up a gun and be involved in shootings. It’s tough.
It must be especially difficult when there’s been such an erosion of social services in most of Chicago’s low-income communities.
I think it’s hard to lecture to these young people about doing something positive, because what opportunities are really being offered to them? If their schools keep constantly closing, and they’re forced to bounce from school to school. If there’s no budget or summer jobs. I’ve probably done four or five different documentaries in Chicago over the last ten years. I remember we did a piece about eight years ago, and it was remarkable to see the difference of violence in North Lawndale when they had summer jobs. Reverend Hood’s told me a number of times this summer that when he gets a call from someone like Keontay’s mom saying, “What can we do? What can we figure out for him to do?” he’s like, I don’t even know what to tell them anymore.
A lot of your documentaries cover vulnerable or troubled youth. What do you find compelling about that topic?
My brother and I both used to work at a community television center in New York, where we also taught classes to high school-age kids. So I’ve always really liked working with kids that age.
After we finished the first iteration of Last Chance High, we felt like we had only scratched the surface about mental illness and how that plays out in adolescents. We wanted to dive deeper into that, so we spent a year at the Covenant House in New Orleans, which is an emergency shelter for youth, and made the film Shelter. A lot of those kids are in very similar situations as the kids in Last Chance High, but now they’re 18, 19, 20 years old. If they’ve gone untreated and are schizophrenic or bipolar, that’s when those kids get pushed out of their households because families don’t know how to deal with them. There’s not a lot of education about mental illness in those communities, and they get kicked out on the streets. I would say the Covenant House is almost the next step after a school like Montefiore—it’s what happens if the kids don’t get services.
You’ve also spent a lot of time in Chicago. Is there something that brings you back to the city as a subject?
Chicago violence tends to make national news in very superficial ways: however many people were shot over July 4 weekend. You don’t see a lot of really in-depth storytelling. And I think after we’d initially been introduced, we kept those relationships. If I hadn’t met Keontay when he was 12 years old, I couldn’t have stepped into his life right now and been able to film. Because we had this long-term relationship with him, that provided an opportunity to show something I think is very hard to capture, just because of the situation those kids are in.
It’s not abnormal for us to revisit subjects and characters and keep up with them. I still have soldiers [who I met during previous projects], ten years later, who I talk to on a weekly basis. I could definitely see us coming back to this story in a few years and following up.
Viceland is supporting and soliciting donations for Derek Brown’s North Lawndale Boxing League and other groups that help students like Keontay and Cortez. Find out more.