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From poverty to professor

A man who has seen his life story change from that of poverty-stricken young man to professor has been named as Alum of the Year at Century College.

Daryl Parks, who lives in the Royal Oaks neighborhood of Woodbury, was invited to give a speech at the Century College graduation ceremony at the Aldrich Arena in Maplewood in mid-May in recognition of his nomination.

Parks, who started his working life as a laborer, corn shoveler, nightclub disc jockey and asbestos remover, is now an associate professor of English education in the Urban Teacher Program run by Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

Coming from Gary, Ind., an area populated by steel factories, Parks had grown up imagining his future to be a factory worker.

The youngest of a family of five children, he was one of just two siblings to graduate high school, and it was only after he met his future wife, Wendy, at a big Christian music festival outside Chicago that Parks started thinking about higher education.

"I enrolled at Century College in late 1989 and started in January 1990," he recalled.

"Wendy and I were married in April -- for our honeymoon, I had to tell my instructor I was going to be away one day."

An associate's degree later, and Parks transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he attained a bachelors degree in English.

He achieved a master's in education in 1998 and a PhD three years ago.

After teaching for seven years at Johnson Senior High School, Parks decided he wanted to have a bigger impact on the teaching system than his work in the classroom could offer.

"While I could have contact with 100 students a day in my classroom and have input into their lives, I became more interested in the educational systems," he explained.

That's when he did the PhD, and works now on a program that helps teachers not just to focus on the hows and whats of teaching, but on the whos: the students.

The author of several books and member of a variety of educational organizations and committees, Parks does still have some time to take a break from it all.

He is a parent volunteer on the integration team at Royal Oaks Elementary School, which his two eldest children -- Emma, nine, and Elijah, six -- attend, and the family is a regular at the Southeast Area YMCA on Radio Drive.

"I think for most of us in this country, whether it's real or imagined, we see public education as the great equalizer," said Parks.

"In public education lies the possibility of democratic ideals, meaning that it's in the public education institutions that people believe that someone who is born in economic poverty can go on to become president."