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Father Joe Parkes: 'Making Our Students Citizens of the World’

Fr. Joseph J. Parkes, S.J., founding President of Cristo Rey New York High School, with English teacher Stephanie Pham. Photo by Elis Estrada
Father Joseph Parkes, S.J., the founding president of NLP partner school Cristo Rey New York High School, calls news literacy "one of the most important needs in the country."

Staying informed and engaged is something that Father Joseph Parkes, S.J., the founding president of Cristo Rey New York High School, takes quite seriously.

“I look at the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post every day,” Parkes said. “I email the papers a lot, too, and I’ve written to the public editor of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others.”

According to Parkes, students often lack this kind of critical thinking and civic engagement when they arrive at Cristo Rey, a Roman Catholic college preparatory school in East Harlem.

“They are so inundated with information that I don’t think they have time to figure out what’s nonsense, what’s propaganda and what’s true,” he said. “How do you build up a critical mind?”

Parkes, a warm, energetic man who has served as president of three Catholic high schools during the past 27 years, recognized the need to provide students with the know-how to be smart, active news consumers and better-informed citizens. He welcomed a collaboration with NLP when its president, Alan Miller, approached him in 2011.

“It’s one of the most important needs in the country,” Parkes said. “If you really want to be an active citizen, you have an obligation to begin to inform yourself about what’s going on.”

The collaboration has evolved into one of NLP’s strongest partnerships. Dozens of students, who come from low-income communities throughout New York City and pay tuition through a work-study program, are taught NLP’s core curriculum each year in their senior English class. Moreover, news literacy now informs many elements of the school’s senior English course.

“They are skills that can remain with them forever. They learn how to critically read a news article or a television news story,” Parkes said, “and that’s a huge plus.”

NLP units include lessons delivered by journalist fellows — including David Gonzalez and Andrea Elliott of The New York Times, Ron Claiborne of ABC News and Lisa Fleisher of The Wall Street Journal — who Parkes believes inspire students.

“If someone comes in from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal to speak to them, they consider that an honor,” Parkes said. “That’s important to them.”

As a board member of Cristo Rey’s national network of 30 schools, Parkes has helped introduce NLP to Cristo Rey schools in Takoma Park, Md., and Houston. He has also participated in events to promote NLP’s mission in New York and elsewhere, including the national News Literacy Summit 2014 in Chicago.

In the process, he has become an ardent advocate for news literacy education. “It’s invaluable in making our students citizens of the world,” he said.