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US priest hopes for 'a brighter, betterNorthern Ireland'

Published 07/05/2013

Gail Bell

THE last time New York priest Fr Joe Parkes was in Belfast it was the height of the Troubles and his abiding memories are of British soldiers and of territorial graffiti emblazoned on high walls, dubiously masquerading as high art.

"They were tough times and attitudes were hard," he remarks of his 1970s visit to Northern Ireland for a conference while working for a Jesuit magazine in the US.

Thankfully, his return visit this week is to an entirely different Belfast for an entirely different conference - he is one of the guest speakers at a media summit where he will speak about the successful Catholic Church-facilitated Cristo Rey educational network that is flourishing in the US.

With more than 25 years of experience in education across a variety of school models, Fr Parkes is well placed to talk about schooling but what will be of particular interest is the way the unique system marries up with the business community, mutually benefiting both students and industry.

He is now president of Cristo Rey New York and chairman of the nationwide Cristo Rey Network which has 25 schools across the US - all of which are aimed at providing opportunities for students from low-income urban neighbourhoods.

Most of the students in his East Harlem school are of hispanic or African American origin, many living in immigrant, 'ghetto' communities with little hope of forging out successful careers if left to the restrictions of the state system.

"Let's just say, most of the kids are not high fliers in academic terms when we get them," he says.

"But the way the Cristo Rey network operates is through big corporations paying our schools an annual fee for students to be released to them for work experience one day a week.

"By gaining practical experience with big-name companies which support us, we very quickly see a turnaround in attitudes and thinking.

"Kids who initially showed no interest in education are suddenly rubbing shoulders with professional people working in places like [finance giant] JP Morgan and they realise that school does makes sense after all and these people are no smarter than they are."

The Cristo Rey Corporate Work Study Programme (CWSP) model was launched in Chicago in 1996 and quickly spread across the country, thanks to supporters such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

And while there may not be quite the same level of 'big business' in the north capable of bankrolling a Cristo Rey model here, Fr Parkes believes the potential still exists.

"This system works and it is replicable in an urban situation anywhere, so I am looking forward to discussing it at the conference," he says.

"I am really looking forward to seeing a brighter, better Northern Ireland."