Education

State board votes to close Durham charter high school after diploma errors

Posted March 2

— The State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to close Kestrel Heights high school in Durham but will allow the charter school to continue serving students in grades K-8.

The decision came after the discovery that 40 percent of the school's students received diplomas they didn't earn in the past eight years.

"Of course, we're disappointed," Kestrel Heights' Executive Director Mark Tracy said after the board's vote. "(But) it will give us an opportunity to continue to strengthen our K-8 program, which is one of the best in the area, and provide a quality education and come back stronger than ever."

"To our parents and to our students, we are here for you," Tracy added.

Kestrel Heights must close its high school by July 1 but can apply to reopen it in three years. The school has 10 days to appeal the board's decision. If it does, a panel of state board members will review the request.

Thursday's vote appeared to be difficult for many members of the State Board of Education, including member Becky Taylor, who fought back tears as she made a motion to close the high school.

"This always is emotional," Taylor said. "This is certainly unfortunate, but it is necessary."

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who sits on the state board, supported closing the high school, calling it "the ultimate accountability."

"Nobody ever wants to do this. It's tragic when these kinds of things happen, but this is our responsibility as a board," he said. "I do hope Kestrel Heights will have the ability to reapply for a high school and do extremely well."

Forest also called for the state Office of Charter Schools to come up with "a bevy of options" for the state board to consider when handling potential problems at charter schools in the future.

"It's time to put together a list, if you will, of what our options are," he said. "There's a lot of confusion around this."

Some of that confusion was evident Thursday as board members questioned what options they had when deciding Kestrel Heights' fate.

State board Chairman Bill Cobey asked whether an outside management group could take over the charter school and said he wasn't sure who would need to initiate that process. A staffer with the Office of Charter Schools explained that a recommendation like that could come from the state board or the state's Charter Schools Advisory Board.

The advisory board previously discussed that option but ultimately decided to recommend that the state board close the high school.

State board Vice Chairman Buddy Collins, who said he "reluctantly" voted to close the high school, also questioned whether a takeover team could help the school.

"I don’t want to minimize what's happened at Kestrel Heights," he said, "but I don’t think we should lose sight of the fact that there's 350 students there who didn’t have anything to do with this."

If the same diploma problems happened at a traditional public school, "that school would not be closed, and those students would not be displaced," Collins said.

Kestrel Heights' new principal first discovered the diploma problem last summer. School leaders investigated further in December 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. The Durham County District Attorney’s Office is working to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted.

8 Comments

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  • Robin Duff Mar 2, 9:40 p.m.
    user avatar

    The school isn't a "bad apple." A couple people who were in high positions were the "bad apples." I am not sure it was a case of kids being passed, more like a case of what credits were earned and kids who were graduated when they hadn't taken the right classes or enough classes. My nephew is finishing up his junior year at Kestrel and now his parents are trying to figure out where he'll go to earn his final credits to graduate. Not a fun situation to be in.

  • Tom Baker Mar 2, 4:06 p.m.
    user avatar

    That is a very unfortunate decision. Kestrel Heights is a fine school. The administration responsible for the mess is long gone. The new leadership discovered and reported the discrepancies as a responsible administrations do. The signal sent to other Charter schools is clear: Hide your problems.

  • Walt Karas Mar 2, 4:05 p.m.
    user avatar

    Excellent point Mark. I just hope to God they made sure the K-8 kids are really getting a good education.

  • Mark Weaver Mar 2, 3:25 p.m.
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    The saddest part here is the errors were not discovered by the state, they were discovered by a new principal that self reported them to the state after the previous principal and guidance counselor that were responsible left. So the new principal, who did the right thing will now be out of a job. I agree with what he did in reporting the errors but every educator in the state now knows that if he had kept his mouth shut, he could have fixed it for the future classes and the state would be none the wiser. What this ruling just did was send a loud and clear message to educators throughout the state to hide problems in the future rather than report them.

  • Thomas White Mar 2, 2:30 p.m.
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    If the K-8 program is so strong why didn't the kids continue that strength through graduation? Sounds like a lot of the kids were just passed so the school could "succeed".

  • Mike Trekker Mar 2, 1:42 p.m.
    user avatar

    99.9% of all Charter schools are excellent. Let's not let one "bad apple," influence our judgment. Hey my HS gave out diplomas to people I knew were illiterate. When discussing this with colleagues it is not something new, and happens all the time in public schools, in the late 20th century.

  • Eric Davis Mar 2, 1:06 p.m.
    user avatar

    They should shut down the entire school. This went on for 8 years. So you average 50 grads a year and can't keep up with there credits earned? You should be able keep up with that info in a three ring binder. Sounds like raises and promotions are the next order of business for Kestrel Heights.

  • Ed Ray Mar 2, 12:40 p.m.
    user avatar

    Why is everyone mad the school handed out things that were not earned. They should have everything stripped from them.