James Hess’ first three years of high school were full, as he puts it, of drama and distractions.
He’d skip class to hang out with his then-girlfriend, or avoid teachers he disliked. By the end of his junior year, Hess was making mostly C’s and D’s and was behind in academic credits.
An assistant principal at Patrick Henry High School suggested he transfer to Forest Park Academy. When Hess got back to school in the fall, he told the principal he was ready to try the alternative high school.
On the first day, Hess said he knew he made the right choice.
“Ever since I came here, it’s been a complete turnaround,” said Hess, who caught up on credits at Forest Park and made the A/B honor roll for the first time since middle school. “I don’t think the teachers here know how much love and appreciation I have for this school, because I was in a real bad place.”
Hess and his classmates at Forest Park marked a milestone for themselves and the school at its annual graduation celebration Wednesday. In this year’s senior class is the school’s 1,000th graduate, who turned out to be Bobby Cash. As Cash’s turn to cross the stage approached, strains of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” began to rise. He paused like a lottery winner to pose with his diploma between Superintendent Rita Bishop and Mayor Sherman Lea.
When the school opened in 2008, Forest Park was an experiment that no one knew would last. Now, it’s considered one of Roanoke’s crown jewels and a big reason behind the school district’s increasing graduation rate, which is pushing 90 percent. Other cities look to the school as a model.
“It is my favorite thing about this district bar none,” said Bishop.
Creating a school from scratch
More than one-third of students were dropping out when Bishop came to Roanoke as superintendent, with the graduation rate hovering below an “absolutely intolerable” 60 percent.
Forest Park was her turnaround pitch to the school board members who hired her.
The idea was modeled after a school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Bishop was working as superintendent. There, the school was called Phoenix Academy but the concept was the same.
Dropouts or students who were behind on credits could catch up at the school, which would have hand-picked teachers, a small student body and draw from the city’s two high schools. The school was not designed as a place for students with significant disciplinary issues; the focus was on helping students catch up academically.
The first decision Bishop made, she says, was to recruit Eric Anderson to lead the school. During a drive from Lancaster to Roanoke, she called Anderson to pitch the job . At the time, he was an assistant principal in the county but he’d worked in the city before, just not at the high school level.
“She asked me: where was I needed more?” Anderson recalled. “It really struck me.”
Creating a school from scratch was an exciting challenge, he said. It was just a concept when he was brought on.
“It took about a year to get the concept out of our heads and into an actual, physical place,” he said.
In the fall of 2008, the academy opened its doors in the old Forest Park Elementary School building on Melrose Avenue.
That first year, teachers hit the streets looking for teenaged dropouts to re-enroll.
“I believe the line was, ‘Boy, do we have a deal for you,’” Bishop recalled.
District administrators poured through transcripts of students who had dropped out within the past few years and tried to re-enlist them . Many were only missing one or two of the credits needed for graduation, Bishop said.
Elizabeth Garst and Di Ann Sites were two of the teachers hired for the school that first year, a group picked by Anderson because they had “fire in the belly.” Sites, who teaches business and information technology courses, described the first year as chaotic. Garst, an English teacher, said it was a like trying to fly the airplane while it was still being built.
“It was new to us and it was new to the students,” Garst said.
Many students hadn’t been in school for years and hadn’t been engaged when they were. Teachers had to earn their trust, Sites said.
“We had students who’d pretty much given up hope,” she said.
Not the school for ‘bad kids’
Since that first year, Forest Park teachers and administrators have tweaked the model.
The student body has changed significantly over the years, Anderson said. It used to be that a majority of the students were over-age. Now, the typical student is more likely to be of traditional high school age.
They end up with Forest Park primarily because they’re dealing with life circumstances that make school a challenge. In all other respects, “they’re typical teenagers,” Anderson said.
“It’s just hard for them to see down the road,” he said.
The perception that Forest Park isn’t for “good” students is one the school has tried to shake since its beginning. Hess cited its reputation among his friends at Patrick Henry for his hesitancy to enroll.
“It was all, Forest Park, that’s a school for bad kids,” Hess said.
Hess said he hasn’t found that to be the case and regrets not enrolling sooner. Sites said her Forest Park students are some of the brightest she’s ever taught.
Most of the time, they need support that’s difficult to obtain at a large school, yet more feasible for one with about 150 students.
With smaller teaching loads, teachers can give students more one-on-one attention, she said.
“We know every student in this building,” Sites said.
Debron West, another senior, said the word from friends before he came was that the school was strict. Teachers weren’t going to let you slip through the cracks, he said.
“That’s what I like, someone to stay on top of me,” West said.
West started at Patrick Henry but came to Forest Park his senior year, like Hess. His grades were disappointing.
“I just knew I could do better,” West said. This year, they’ve improved, and he credits to what he’s obtained at Forest Park.
“They helped me buckle down,” he said.
Hess said it’s been emotional to experience his own progress this year. The goals he set for himself, like bringing up his grade point average, have been achieved.
“To lay down and be excited to go to your school the next day” — that was something Hess had never experienced before.
“I fell in love with this school in the first week,” he said.
This year’s milestone graduation was also emotional day for many.
Administrators have anticipated the moment but weren’t sure when they’d arrive at the special number of diplomas. When last year ended with 986 graduates, the focus shifted to 2017.
On Wednesday, the Jefferson Center auditorium stage was festooned with blue and silver balloons, including four columns topped with a shiny, inflatable “1000.”
“Are you ready to celebrate?” Anderson asked during his opening remarks. “To see so many students who sometimes didn’t have hope make it, it’s a proud moment.”
After a pause to recognize the night’s milestone, the remaining graduates were called, and then the crowd was treated to a video montage of all the classes to pass through Forest Park.
Set to an energetic hip-hop soundtrack, the video displayed kids dancing in hallways and mugging for the camera, pecking on calculators and managing science experiments in classrooms, and graduating classes posing on the school’s front steps.
The crowd responded with deafening applause as Anderson presented the Forest Park Academy class of 2017.
“Nine years have gone by quicker than I ever would have thought,” Anderson said.
Staff writer Matt Chittum contributed to this report.