September 3, 2008

Forest Park Parents Seek Right to Choose Students’ New School

By Laurence Hammack and Mason Adams The Roanoke Times l [email protected] 981-3239 m [email protected] 981- 3253

A Roanoke judge is being asked to decide the latest dispute arising from the controversial closing of Forest Park Elementary School.

In a petition filed Friday in Roanoke Circuit Court, the parents of four children who attended Forest Park in the last school year accused Superintendant Rita Bishop of failing to provide them with enough choices of where to go when city schools begin classes on Tuesday.

The school board voted in May to close Forest Park to use the building as an alternative program for overage middle and high school students. Under the school system's plan, kindergarten, first- and second-grade students will go from Forest Park to Highland Park Elementary. Third- and fourth-grade students will go to Hurt Park Elementary, and fifth-graders will go to Roanoke Academy for Mathematics and Science Elementary.

The petition, filed by legal aid attorney Hank Bostwick, asserts that federal No Child Left Behind standards were violated when four students' requests for particular schools or transportation were denied.

Bostwick said the writ was aimed at the issue of school choice and "has nothing to do with attempting to stop the new academy at Forest Park."

"For our office, this is an issue of poverty," Bostwick said.

Bishop said the school system has been working with the families of all the students affected by the closing of Forest Park and that those efforts will continue despite the litigation.

But she took issue with Bostwick's claim that all Forest Park students should be allowed to attend schools of their choices beyond those designated under the school system's relocation plan.

"We believe, upon the advice of our school board attorney and the Virginia Department of Education, that when a school is closed or re-purposed, the choice ends, and there will be no choice to the students who were assigned to Highland Park or RAM," Bishop said.

However, because Hurt Park did not meet accreditation standards, all students at that school -- not just the transfers from Forest Park -- will be given the option to attend another school, she said. School officials plan to meet with parents at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the Hurt Park cafeteria to discuss the options.

"We will do anything that we can within reason to meet the needs of our students and their parents," Bishop said. "Kids should not be in the foray of this. This is about education. I bear no ill will to anyone here, and I will do everything that is possible to work with these three families and the best interests of their children."

The petition filed by Bostwick asks a circuit court judge to order Bishop to provide all Forest Park students with the option to transfer to more than one school.

"This is a long-shot case," Bostwick said. "No Child Left Behind has not been engineered to make it easy for students who have been denied their rights to seek redress in the courts."

The issue of closing the school has already been addressed through a complaint filed in May with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming that the school board violated the civil rights of Forest Park students, most of whom are black. That complaint is still pending.

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