Student film project shows light-rail’s effects on community

Bobby Hickman, nephew of Gordon Parks, at the premiere of the “Transitions: University Avenue” film project held at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul May 26

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Gordon Parks High School, a year-round school in the St. Paul School District, serves students who prefer individual and small-group instruction. Principal Michael Thompson says 65 percent of its students are Black, 20 percent are Asian, “and [there are] a few White kids, Hispanic kids and Native American kids. Kids come to this school for many reasons because we are an alternative learning school.”
Many students are there because “they didn’t have success at other schools or the other programs they were in,” the principal adds.
Curriculum Director Paul Creager says that after years of trial and error in finding the right curriculum that students could excitedly get hooked on, “We found out that this story is right outside our front door.”
That story eventually became “Transitions: University Avenue,” a multi-year project produced entirely by the Parks students. It will document from pre-construction to completion of the light rail along the avenue. The Minnesota Historical Society also supported the film project, which features stories of elders, business owners and residents affected by the Central Corridor train, with state Legacy Amendment funds.
The students visited the historical society and met with curators and historians. They also learned the fundamentals of photography in art classes, as well as interview techniques and sound editing in English and social studies classes.
University of Minnesota Journalism Professor Catherine Squires also brought to the high school several of her students to work with the Parks group to help them create a website. “We started out by just trying to get more tools in the hands of these kids,” she notes.
Around 30 students participated — “about 15 percent of our students,” Thompson estimates. “About 19 or 20 [students were] actually doing the interviews; then we have the photographers and editors.”
For many of the participants, the project was their first time doing person-to-person interviews or working with photography. The 16 sound slides produced include interviews with a Black barber who expressed concerns about the light rail’s impact on his business and an East African restaurant owner who foresees her business possibly benefiting once the trains start rolling down University Avenue.
“Many of our students have very personal connections to University Avenue,” says Creager. “I think they wanted to be part of the story [as well].”
“This is a new experience for me because I don’t normally get the chance to go out and take photos,” admits Eniel Denham, age 18.
“I think that it opened a lot of opportunities for us to want to do journalism,” adds senior Kasaondra Bye.
“I learned a lot of stuff,” says 16-year-old Jaconte Kelly. “It was a lot of fun.”
The project “is what alternative education should be,” proclaimed Thompson during a May 26 celebration and short screening held at Parks. He applauded both students and staff for “going out into the neighborhood and not staying in our classrooms.”
Creager believes “Transitions” ideally fits with the school’s namesake, the late famed photographer Gordon Parks. “His legacy is so powerful that when students learn about it, they seek to emulate it. As students at Gordon Parks High School, they think they are part of a rich tradition of storytelling.”
Among those who attended the “Transitions” premiere, which included residents who were interviewed, was Parks’ nephew Bobby Hickman. “I’m just pleased to see that the leadership here at this school is encouraging” the students to do such projects as documenting what’s happening on University Avenue from the elders and business owners’ points of view, he admitted.
Bye, who says she has lived in the University Avenue area since she was 10 years old, added, “I think it was good that we were able to interact with elders who have been here, and get to see the change on University Avenue.”
“The students are really learning from [the elders and business owners’] stories, and learning a little bit more about the history of this area,” notes Squires.
Local rapper Brother Ali, who was the May event’s featured speaker, praised the students’ efforts: “There is a real powerful message…to tell that story,” he said.
Thompson says that although it is a student production, “Transitions” is a good example of how his students at Parks “can do solid work that looks very professional.  I’m just proud of them.”
“Our hope is to continue [the project] until the light rail is done,” pledges Creager. Although she is graduating from Parks this year, Bye declares, “I plan on being part of it next year.”

To see the Transitions project, go to
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