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Kestrel Heights Charter Loses Right To Run High School

a teacher in a classroom
Bart Everson
Flickr/Creative Commons
Kestrel Heights gave diplomas to 160 students who didn't earn them.

State Board of Education members voted Thursday to revoke Kestrel Heights Charter School's right to serve high school students. The Durham K-12 charter school is on thin ice after it uncovered a long-running diploma scandal.

"This is certainly unfortunate, but it is necessary," board member Becky Taylor said Thursday, growing emotional while voicing her support for the action. "The board of Kestrel Heights needs to improve its management and be monitored more closely, if it's going to remain open as a K-8 school."

Kestrel Heights Executive Director Mark Tracy said he was "disheartened" by the vote and its impact on the school's students.

"But to our current families and students, we will make the best efforts possible to make sure whatever transition occurs, we'll make sure they land on their feet," Tracy said.

About 350 high school students currently attend the school. Tracy said Kestrel Heights staff members are working individually with these students and their families to to make sure they get a "quality education," moving forward.

Last summer, Kestrel Heights' new high school principal discovered past high school administrators had been giving out diplomas to seniors who had not completed the state-required coursework. The school's internal investigation revealed more than 40 percent of Kestrel Heights' graduates since 2008 received one of these unearned diplomas.

The state board of education's vote means Kestrel Heights will no longer be allowed to serve grades 9-12, starting next August. However, Kestrel Heights will be allowed to continue serving grades K-8. The disciplinary action was recommended to the state board of education by its charter school advisory board earlier this year.

Office of Charter Schools Director Dave Machado said he believes the school's problems were the result of "incompetence," and that school personnel had not intentionally given out unearned diplomas. But board of education member Oliva Oxendine didn't seem persuaded legal action could be ruled out.

"Something about this feels illegal," she said to the board.

The charter school advisory board said it turned  the case over to the Durham County District Attorney's office to determine if a criminal investigation is needed.

Kestrel Heights was pushing to keep its high school open, saying its board has strengthened oversight, and that closing the high school would put the charter school on shaky financial ground.

"Because we operate as a fiscally integrated K-12 school, the high school is critical to the entire organization's financial viability," Kestrel Height's board chairman Brandon Paris wrote in a letter to the state board.

Paris also wrote that Kestrel Heights is under new leadership, has hired a consultant to work with the board of directors on governance and oversight training, and is exploring a partnership with a charter management organization.

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.
Lisa Philip is an occasional contributor to WUNC. Previously, she covered education for the station and covered schools in Howard County, Maryland for the Baltimore Sun newspapers.
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