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Report: 40 Percent Of Kestrel Heights Graduates Didn’t Have Enough Credits For Diploma

Flickr via Cynthia Ahrens

An internal investigation has revealed 40 percent of Kestrel Heights Charter School graduates since 2008 didn't actually have enough credit hours to earn a high school diploma. The Durham charter school released a statement Monday saying there was "a systematic breakdown by the high school principals and counselor for the eight-year period in question."

A review conducted by Kestrel and its new principal found 160 out of 399 graduates since 2008 received faulty diplomas. The school says executive director Mark Tracy became aware of an issue with a handful of seniors' graduation requirements in June 2016, days before students were scheduled to graduate. According to the report, a deeper investigation by Kestrel's new principal revealed 22 of 71 seniors in 2015-2016 did not have the state-mandated course credits required to earn a diploma.

The school conducted a further investigation at the direction of the state charter school advisory board back to 2008, and found the issue extended back 8 years. In the 2007-2008 school year, nearly 60 percent of graduating students did not meet the graduation requirements.

"The [Kestrel School] Board concludes that the actions of the high school principals and counselor lacked the requisite diligence and thoroughness expected of educated, trained, and experienced professionals," the school's report reads. But it notes the investigation was "unable to substantiate claims that the actions of the high school principals and counselor involved were willful, intentional, or done with malice."

The school says it has hired a new principal and new counselor and will have a new policy requiring the counselor to meet with juniors twice a year and seniors three times a year to make sure they’re on track to graduate. They also say they will have more meetings between high school administration to make sure students are getting the credits they need.

"The board cannot undo what has been done," the report reads. "However, by issuing this investigative report, the board and school leadership have implemented stronger verification processes that should eliminate further accountability discrepancies."

The state charter school advisory board is reconsidering its 10-year renewal for Kestrel Heights, and has referred the case to the Durham County District Attorney to determine if criminal charges should be brought.

The school is scheduled to present its findings to the state charter school advisory board at its monthly meeting on Wednesday.

Below is a timeline of events, according to Kestrel's report:

June 7, 2016

Days before the Kestrel Heights graduation ceremony, two Kestrel Heights staff members tell executive director Mark Tracy they believe there are problems with two students' graduation requirements.

June 8, 2016

Tracy calls a meeting to discuss the issue. The  high school counselor presents issues pertaining to eight students' graduation requirements. The students parents' are contacted to tell them they would not be graduating. The counselor tells Tracy she reviewed all transcripts and that the eight students were the only ones impacted for the class of 2015-2016.

June 30, 2016

Last day of school for high school principal, whose contract is not renewed by the Kestrel school board.

July 1, 2016

New principal takes over high school. Later, Tracy informs new principal of recent issues with graduation requirements and asks the new principal to look into the issue.

July 18, 2016

New principal generates master schedule for all rising seniors to make sure they are on track to meet graduation requirements, since the school was transitioning from a block schedule to a traditional schedule. The new principal finds several reasons to be concerned rising seniors are missing some course requirements. By the end of July, the report says, all issues with rising seniors are addressed. However, the new principal informs Tracy the issue may have affected past graduating classes.

August 1, 2016

Tracy requests preliminary audit of the 2015-2016 class, pulling 20 random transcripts. He finds that six of the 20 random transcripts raise concerns. Tracy calls a meeting with the high school counselor and the new principal. According to the report, the counselor was not able to explain the credit issues.

August 2, 2016

Tracy informs the Kestrel Heights' school board about the results of the preliminary audit and the intention to probe further.

September 2, 2016

The high school counselor submits her resignation, after having been absent since August 26 due to an "alleged illness." The new principal takes on some duties of the former counselor.

September 14, 2016

Tracy requests full audit of the class of 2015-2016, and brings on board member Valerie Evans to conduct a secondary audit to validate results.

September 22, 2016

Full audit reveals 22 of 71 graduates in 2016 had not met the Future Core Ready Graduation requirements, although their transcripts indicated that they had graduated. Evans' secondary audit confirms findings. School board holds a special meeting and decides to report the findings to the state office of charter schools.

October 3, 2016

Kestrel's board sends a letter to the office of charter schools, informing them of the issue.

November 11, 2016

Kestrel's board and executive staff meet with the office of charter schools to discuss the school's problems.

December 2, 2016

School officials begin contacting students to inform them of the problems and that they had issues relating to their transcripts.

December 8, 2016 

Kestrel officials go before the state charter school advisory board. Tracy says an internal investigation into the past three graduating classes revealed credit problems with at least 53 students. The charter school advisory board decides to reconsider Kestrel's 10-year charter renewal and refers the case to the Durham County district attorney to determine if criminal charges should be brought. The advisory board also asks Kestrel to investigate back to 2008.

January 9, 2017

Kestrel releases the results of its internal investigation back to 2008. The investigation reveals 160 of 399 Kestrel graduates since 2008 did not have the state-mandated credits required for a high school diploma.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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