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NC charter board recommends Durham high school close after diploma problems

Posted January 11

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— The state Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended Wednesday that Kestrel Heights School in Durham close its high school, effective July 1, and continue serving students only in grades K-8.

That recommendation now goes to the State Board of Education, which will make the final decision about the school's fate. The state board will meet in February.

Kestrel Heights reported this week that 40 percent of its graduates – 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 the school's Executive Director Mark Tracy. He said he does not believe their actions were "willful, intentional or done with malice" but noted that they are "are no longer employed" at the school.

LaSaundra Vines was listed on the school's website as its high school counselor. Her picture and biography were taken down last month and replaced with the name of a new counselor who was hired in October. When reached by phone last month, a woman who identified herself as Vines declined to comment to WRAL News.

The State Board of Education has recommended that the Durham County District Attorney’s Office determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

Kestrel Heights was up for a 10-year renewal of its charter, but the advisory board recommended Monday that the school's K-8 grades be renewed for only three years. Board members said they would have considered revoking the school's charter altogether but decided against it because the school reported the problems on its own and has done a good job operating its K-8 grades.

Advisory Board Chairman Alex Quigley said Wednesday's vote on the school's future was "one of hardest I've ever made in my tenure on this board."

"We have to take action. We have to hold ourselves more accountable than anyone else should," Quigley said.

Board Vice Chairman Steven Walker said that, although Kestrel Heights "messed up royally," he appreciated that the school reported the problems to the state and has taken corrective action.

"Charter schools receive a lot of oversight. If this had been a traditional public school, do you think there would be a board sitting here deciding whether this school should (be in existence)?" Walker said. "If you don’t perform, you don’t operate anymore. There is a lot of pressure on these charter schools."

Other advisory board members spoke out about the school's problems Wednesday, and they voted unanimously that the high school should close.

The school's actions "cannot go without serious punishment," said member Joseph Maimone.

Board member Alan Hawkes called the diploma problem "egregious" and a "stain on every charter high school in North Carolina."

"This is precedent-setting in North Carolina, and we have to be firm," Hawkes added. "This can be a cautionary tale to other charter schools in North Carolina."

Kestrel Heights "so grossly violated the public trust," board member Eric Sanchez said, adding that schools "can't oversee everything."

"I understand there are blind sides, things you miss," Sanchez said. "But when you miss something for over eight years, over 40 percent of students having these discrepancies, it's more systemic negligence. It’s a true embarrassment to what we try to do here and what charter schools are."

Kestrel Heights' new principal discovered the diploma problem in July, shortly after she took the job. The school began investigating and reported the issue to the state's Office of Charter Schools on Oct. 5.

Since the discovery came to light, officials at Kestrel Heights have reached out to affected students by certified mail. They sent an initial letter to inform students that there is a potential issue with their transcript. They followed up with two more letters if the students didn't respond.

The affected students missed one or more mandated courses, including American History II, English 3 and 4, Math 4, World History, Physical Education, Earth Science, Physical Science, Algebra 2, Geometry, Biology, and Civics, according to the school.

The chief of the state Office of Charter Schools said Wednesday that Kestrel Heights' diplomas problems are "unacceptable" and said the state is continuing to monitor them. He said his office found other problems with the school during a site visit in 2014. The school failed to list all of its students in the state's student database and was warned about the importance of testing accountability, he said.

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