Every student who enrolls in St. Paul's Gordon Parks High School takes a class exploring the life and legacy of the school's namesake. There's a very good reason, officials say. Parks, a photographer, filmmaker, artist and writer who spent his formative years and early career in St. Paul, inspires and emboldens students by his example of rising from homelessness, poverty and racism through photography, film and storytelling.
Starting Tuesday, the school, the neighborhood, the Parks family and the city of St. Paul celebrate that legacy and the high school's 10th anniversary with a weeklong series of events.
About a third of Gordon Parks' 250 students are engaged in the kind of work that Parks, a former Life magazine photographer, chose: using film and photography to connect with community, said Paul Creager, the school's curriculum coordinator. Over the past five years, students have produced about 50 films, he said.
In Parks' book "A Choice of Weapons," he recounts his time as a teenager in St. Paul and his struggles with homelessness and trying to stay in school. Parks died in 2006. "His pathway is very similar to many of our students', Creager said. "The weapon he chose, photography and film, and his unrelenting commitment to taking chances and investing in himself, is a very powerful part of his story."
The school was founded a decade ago as an alternative learning center, tasked with helping students who are behind in credits — most of whom are ages 18-21 — resume a path to graduation. While the school offers a variety of courses in math, science and the humanities, a big part of its focus is "connecting with his legacy through civic engagement and digital storytelling," Creager said.
Parks' grandniece, Robin Hickman, who also teaches at the school, said a student recently said to her, " 'I'm so inspired by your uncle. I have learned so much.' I hear that again and again and again."
Hickman, who was involved in the early stages of creating the school, said it was important to her that it did more than borrow her uncle's name. "His life and legacy had to be infused in this school," she said. Consider her happy with the results. So much so, she said, she would like to see Parks' life's work become part of the curriculum throughout the school district.
"It has the power to transform young people," she said. "This is the place. This is the place."
For a complete schedule of events, go to: spps.org/Page/33737.