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Durham charter school fights Board of Education's order to close for improper diplomas

Kestrel Heights, a Durham charter school, must close its high school at the end of the school year, the State Board of Education decided—but the school is appealing the order.

The Board of Education's ruling came after an internal investigation found that Kestrel Heights has awarded approximately 160 diplomas during the past eight years to students who had not completed the state's graduation requirements. Kestrel Heights' charter will only be renewed if it drops grades nine through 12, but it is still allowed to operate a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school and may apply to reopen its high school in three years.

However, the Kestrel Heights Board of Directors voted Tuesday night to appeal the decision.

“I’d like to think that as a board we are fully committed to our families, and to our students and to the success of our school,” said Brandon Paris, president of the Kestrel Heights Board of Directors. “So at the end of the day, the question of whether or not we were going to appeal was not really a question.”

The school was informed of the state board’s decision in a letter March 2, which told them that they had until March 10 to comply with the decision or until March 13 to file an appeal.

At its Tuesday meeting, the school's board—which is made up of current and former Kestrel Heights parents—also voted to hire a new attorney to aid in the appeals process.

“To be honest, this is not a space that we have been in as a school, so we are learning as we go as well,” Paris said. “We have the opportunity to file our appeal, and we are doing that, and yet there are requirements that the state mandates for a school that has been identified to close and we are following those as well.”

If the state board’s decision stands, Kestrel Heights High School will be shut down June 30.

Kestrel Heights, which opened in 1998, was previously in line to receive a 10-year charter, according to the News and Observer. However, in January the state's Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended the high school shut down after finding that since 2008, about 40 percent of the school’s nearly 400 graduates did not receive the proper credits to graduate.

The problem was first discovered last summer when April Goff, the middle school principal, stepped in to oversee the high school. While working on class schedules for the rising seniors, she identified some concerns about students’ ability to graduate, said Mark Tracy, executive director of Kestrel Heights.

“We did a sampling of the class of 2016 and identified six out of 20 of those transcripts had some type of issue,” he said.

The school reported the issue in October, and in January the Charter School Advisory Board subsequently recommended closing the high school.

Since discovering the error, the school has been in contact with affected students—an attempt at remedying the problem that Tracy says is “going very well.”

North Carolina is home to more than 150 charter schools—15 of which are in Durham County—and Kestrel is hardly the only charter school in Durham to have issues in recent years.

From 1997 to 2015, five local charter schools relinquished their charters, and one had it revoked for a variety of reasons from low enrollment to financial issues. In total, 56 North Carolina charter schools voluntarily relinquished or had their charter revoked during that span.

Tracy explained that the issue is not that charter schools are less accountable, but rather that they are held to a higher standard than public schools.

“The reality is, as one of the members of the State Board of Education alluded to, if this happened in a public school setting, that school would not have been closed,” he said. “This doesn’t take away from the level of accountability on our end of what occurred, but the reality is that charter schools are held at a higher level of accountability than public schools.”

Going forward, the school will have until Monday to file its official request for an appeal of the state board’s decision. If the appeal is not successful, Kestrel’s current high school students will have to find another school for next year.

“From the comments I’ve heard, parents are upset. They’re disappointed,” Paris said. “Children are disappointed, and I think the reactions are all natural given the gravity of what’s happened to the school.”

Bre Bradham

Bre is a senior political science major from South Carolina, and she is the current video editor, special projects editor and recruitment chair for The Chronicle. She is also an associate photography editor and an investigations editor. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief and local and national news department head. 

Twitter: @brebradham



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