NC charter school that improperly gave diplomas might restart high school program

Leaders of an embattled Durham charter school that’s trying to rebuild its image after improperly awarding diplomas to 40 percent of its graduates say they might ask for state permission to reopen the high school program in a few years.

The State Board of Education voted in March to order Kestrel Heights Charter School to close its high school program after the school determined that 160 of 395 students since 2008 had been given diplomas they hadn’t earned. Kestrel was allowed to remain open as a K-8 school but was told it couldn’t ask to restart its high school program for at least three years.

The closing of the high school left Kestrel with a building that it’s not using but is still paying off. Mark Tracy, Kestrel’s executive director, told the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board on Tuesday that requesting permission to reopen the high school is “definitely an option on the table.”

But most of Tracy’s focus was on giving an update on Kestrel, including presenting an audit that found no significant current problems with the school. Tracy thanked the advisory board for taking a risk by not recommending that the entire charter school close.

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“Honestly I want to say thank you on behalf of our students, our families, our staff for giving us this opportunity to prove that your decision was right that Kestrel Heights provides a quality education for the students that go there,” Tracy said.

As a charter school, Kestrel is a taxpayer-funded public school that’s free of some of the rules and regulations that traditional public schools must follow. But the diploma issue put Kestrel under greater state scrutiny, including more frequent appearances before the charter schools advisory board.

“After the debacle,” advisory board member Alan Hawkes asked what’s being done to help the students whose diplomas aren’t valid. He also asked about what’s happened to the Kestrel Heights board members “who sat on their hands” while the problems occurred.

Tracy said only one board member from the 2014-15 school year is still on Kestrel’s board. He also said they’re working hard to help the former students correct the diploma issues.

“We are working actively to meet and try to find those students,” Tracy said. “We are having success in finding students. That’s a difficult piece in of itself, but also finding solutions and resolutions.”

Kestrel now has 563 students, and 200 fewer K-8 students than a year ago. Tracy said marketing the school is difficult because it will take some time to overcome Kestrel’s “negative stigma.”

But advisory board members praised Kestrel’s efforts over the last several months. Alex Quigley, chairman of the advisory board, said the diploma issue Kestrel faced wasn’t an isolated incident because it’s also happened at traditional public schools.

“We know that you have weathered a lot,” Quigley said. “I’m glad to see that the school has come through or is at least in the process of coming through, coming out on the other side of this.

“I don’t want to speak for other board members, but our hope is that you get through this and you succeed and you continue to provide a great option for kids in Durham.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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