Gordon Parks was a modern renaissance man. A composer, author and filmmaker, he is best known as a groundbreaking photographer whose images of urban life, poverty, race relations and civil rights have had a deep impact on American culture.
Gordon Parks Elementary School, a charter public school in Kansas City, Missouri, honors Mr. Parks, who proudly endorsed the school’s mission of educating children living in the urban core to reach their full potential. The school’s founders, Sue Jarvis and Dorothy Curry, who knew Gordon Parks, wanted to instill in students his love of arts and culture. Throughout the building, there are display cases and photos showcasing Mr. Parks’s work, including letters he wrote to the school and other memorabilia.
Gordon Parks died in 2006, but every year on his birthday, November 30, the students celebrate his life. Depending on the grade level, students are read to about Mr. Parks (there is a children’s book about him in each classroom), they study his more famous photos or they write biographical reports. The school also observes Mr. Parks’s death, March 7, by holding a moment of silence for him at the start of the day.
This year, during Black History Month, each class is studying notable African Americans. Fourth graders, for example, have each selected a significant figure to research and write about—from Harriet Tubman to Duke Ellington, Muhammad Ali, Ruby Bridges and, of course, Gordon Parks.
The school has seen dramatic increases in student achievement over the last few years. Overall, 3rd grade scores on Missouri’s state assessment are up eight- and nine-fold since 2012 (Advanced and Proficient).
In reading, Gordon Parks Elementary has reduced the percentage of students in the Urgent Intervention Category on the STAR assessment from 42 percent to 28 percent. In math, the percentage of students needing urgent intervention has been cut in half, from 14 percent to 7 percent. In 2016, Gordon Parks was ranked fourth among all charter schools in the Kansas City area. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a school that risked closure due to low performance just four years ago, a turnaround that a local TV station noted in a recent visit.