Durham Charter School Proposes Punishment, Urges State Not to Close High School

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— A Durham charter school is making another plea to the state to keep its high school open, despite giving out unearned diplomas to hundreds of students in the past eight years.

The State Board of Education is expected to decide next week whether Kestrel Heights should close its high school this summer as punishment for the diploma problems.

The school’s board of directors sent a letter to the state board last week to again request a meeting, which the state has not yet granted, and to outline what it thinks the correct punishment should be. The school provided the letter to the media on Tuesday.

Kestrel Heights has proposed the following corrective action:

1. The state should approve a three-year renewal for Kestrel Heights School grades K-12. (The school had initially sought a 10-year renewal.)

2. The state should require that Kestrel Heights School use its best efforts to resolve all outstanding cases on or before June 30, 2018, related to students graduating without the required courses.

3. The state should require that Kestrel Heights provide monthly updates to the Office of Charter Schools, identifying the number of cases resolved, number of cases in progress, the number of students refusing to take corrective action (if any), and the number of unresponsive students and the efforts being made to contact those students.

Kestrel Heights supporters have ramped up their efforts in recent weeks to persuade the State Board of Education to keep their school open. They’ve also sent emails and started a Change.org petition, which has garnered more than 660 signatures.

The state board was supposed to vote on the school’s fate this month but decided to delay the vote until March. Board members said they wanted more time to read the many emails they had received.

WRAL News requested copies of the feedback the state board received. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released the emails, with some portions redacted to protect student privacy.

Among the many emails from Kestrel Heights supporters was one from a member of the state Charter Schools Advisory Board, who decided to make his own appeal to the State Board of Education.

“Please do not cave to this parent & employee pressure,” advisory board member Alan Hawkes wrote on Jan. 26. “Parents and personnel should be grateful (the advisory board’s) recommendation was not more severe than it was.”

Hawkes and the rest of the Charter Schools Advisory Board voted unanimously last month to recommend closing Kestrel Heights High School, effective July 1, as punishment for the diploma debacle. They agreed that the school should still be allowed to serve students in grades K-8. Some members, including Hawkes, said the vote was one of the toughest they had ever made.

In an interview, Hawkes called the vote to recommend closing the high school “agonizing” but said it had to be done to show that the state is holding charter schools accountable.

“We heard from parents and teachers at Kestrel Heights, and they’re wailing and gnashing their teeth,” Hawkes said. “I’m sympathetic, but you still have to, with something that egregious, there have to be sanctions.”

Despite the advisory board’s recommendation, the final decision on the school’s fate rests with the State Board of Education, which is expected to discuss the matter at its meeting on March 1 and vote on March 2.

Kestrel Heights Executive Director Mark Tracy said the school has made substantial changes “to make sure this will never happen again.”

“It would be a shame and a disruption to our current students who had nothing to really do with this if they didn’t have an opportunity to continue their education here at Kestrel and graduate,” he said.

That was a common theme among those who emailed the state board. The school should not be closed, they argued, because it self-reported the problem.

Kestrel Heights alerted the state Office of Charter Schools last fall that it had given diplomas to students who didn’t earn them. The school’s new principal first discovered the problem last summer. School leaders investigated further and found that 160 of 399 students received diplomas in the past eight years without earning all of the proper credits.

The problems stemmed from “systematic errors” by a counselor and two principals, according to school officials, who said the staffers are no longer employed. Meanwhile, the Durham County District Attorney’s Office is working to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.