Gordon Parks High School students play role in shaping and digging into park’s history by collecting votes
By TESHA M. CHRISTENSEN
Again and again, students at Gordon Parks High School (GPHS) have worked to make sure citizens are involved in the journey to transform a vacant lot next to their school into a five-acre park.
GPHS, along with the Skyline Tower apartment complex and Union Park District Council, expressed concern about the park name selection process being planned by the city earlier this year, pointed out Curriculum & Media Arts Coordinator Paul Creager.
“As a result, we helped organize a process that resulted in a huge increase in community participation, with numerous voting sites in the neighborhood adjacent to the future park,” said Creager. “We want to empower community.”
512 vote on top three names
The school served as a voting location for students and parents, as well as for nearby Midway residents.
Citizens were asked to give input on 15 possible park names. These 15 names originated from several community engagement activities in 2016-2017, where over 100 name ideas were gathered. Of those, 15 names met city of St. Paul criteria and were the most popular, including: All Nations/New Nations, Family (Lakota: Tiospaya or Tiwahe), Freedom, Gordon, Green, Harmony, International, Lexington-Hamline, Midway, Mosaic, Peace (Arabic: Salam), People (Somali: Bulsho), Union, Unity (Sanskrit: Samadhi) and University.
The voting process whittled the 15 options down to the most popular five in November: Peace Park, Midway Park, Mosaic Park, Tiwahe Park, and Unity Park.
At two meetings in December, one held at Skyline Towers and the other at the regular Union Park District Council Board meeting site, citizens agreed to forward three names to the city’s park and recreation commission.
The community voting process resulted in 512 votes being cast for Peace, Unity, and Midway.
St. Paul parks and recreation will recommend to the city council one name this month.
In the past, students have referred to the park as Three Ring Gardens after its long history of housing circuses, while the city labeled it Lexington Commons.
In 2016, with $1.5 million from the city’s 8-80 Vitality Fund, The Trust for Public Land put together the purchase of the three parcels that will become a 5-acre park as part of the group’s focus on more green space along the light rail line. The land was then conveyed to the city.
The park is still in the fundraising stage, and will hopefully be developed in late 2018.
Students and neighbors envision a playground, outdoor classroom/amphitheater, indoor gardening space and a community orchard at this property that sits 17 feet higher than University Ave. and offers a unique overlook of nearby treetops and rooftops.
It will be a park that champions open space, equity and access.
According to a green space assessment, just 2.3 percent of the area is dedicated to parkland, although parks make up an average of 15 percent of St. Paul. The new park will be within a 10-minute walk of more than 2,600 residents—including the residents of Skyline Tower, who are largely East African immigrants.
“Our work on the future park at Griggs is an example of civically engaged storytelling-approaches to curriculum,” remarked Creager. “Highly engaging, state-standard aligned curriculum is available in the community around a school and doesn’t need to be purchased from Pearson Inc. and Scholastic. For students, interaction with this park project boosted their sense of civic agency, and familiarity with the processes of championing community change.”
Photo right: Gordon Parks High School English teacher Jamie Tomlin collects ideas for park names during a student-led event on the future park property held in 2017. These names were then whittled down to 15, then five, and finally three that were forwarded to the parks and recreation department. The three finalists were Peace, Unity, and Midway. In all, 512 votes were cast on the names. (Photo by Tesha M. Christensen)
Creager added, “For the educators involved, the project gave us an opportunity to apply learning in a relevant, tangible way, and show that schools can play a vital role in the communities where they are located.”
GPHS remains dedicated to staying informed regarding ongoing park work through the Trust for Public Land and city of St. Paul.
Although 17-year-old LaDavia Allcorn will graduate this spring, she plans to come back and assist with the park. “I’m not done,” she said. “That park isn’t built yet.”
The park caught Allcorn’s attention the very first day she attended GPHS as a sophomore, and ever since she’s been working to make the park a reality. She’s so glad for the opportunity through GPHS to get credit for “doing something amazing like this.” Working through the process of getting a park created has been an eye-opener for her.
“I’m ready for that park to be built,” said Allcorn. She’s excited for the day when she can bring her kids to the park and let them know she helped make it happen.
It is a park that the school and nearby community need, according to Allcorn, who recently helped garner votes on the park name. Personally, she favored the name “Our Park,” because, as she explained, “It’s everyone’s park.”
Allcorn pointed out that parks are beneficial in many ways, and she’s looking forward to students being able to have a space to spread out a blanket, take a break from school, and enjoy the mental health benefits associated with green space.
“They deserve that,” stated Allcorn, who observed that this park might be something small for others, but it’s something big for them.
Soil analysis at park site
GPHS students have also begun collaborating with Kat Hayes, an anthropology professor at the University of Minnesota, and her grad students.
“The future parkland has a unique history, and some of the soil is relatively undisturbed,” stated Creager.
Students have done archaeological mapping projects on the property.
The archaeology curriculum includes components such as biology modules using bone casts and teaching bones from the university’s anthropology department labs. A demonstration was given on LIDAR (light detection and ranging), a noninvasive way to record and assess the site, as well as a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) module, that gave students a chance to see how this technology is used in the field.
Students also learned how archaeologists set up sites and document everything in 3D space.
Under the direction of GPHS science teacher Joel Abdella, students have recently begun conducting a soil analysis project.
This project and the future park space has “helped begin years of science and social studies curricular inquiry,” said Creager. “These projects also create a shareable class experience that will help inspire more taxpayer support to leverage policymaker involvement with thoughtful school change, and inspire students and staff to keep pushing for the educational reform our schools need.”
Creager added, “Kat is also an incredible fit for us because she brings a deep background of exploring sensitive racial and economic histories into archaeological inquiry.”
Participants appreciate this project because it involves so many things—historical research, contemporary social relevance of urban planning, questions of environmental justice, applications of science and math to real-world problems, and thinking about how to commemorate the past.