Kestrel Heights senior Dana Gentry learned at the start of the school year that she was approaching graduation two English credits short of state requirements.
“I was a little upset,” said Gentry, president of Kestrel Heights’ student council. “I was under the impression I was done with all my English credits.”
Still, Gentry was among dozens of students who rallied in front of the school Tuesday, the day before the State Board of Education takes up a recommendation to close the charter school’s high school.
Students held signs that said “Hasn’t education taught us to learn from our mistakes?” while chanting “Save our Teachers! Save our School!”
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The state Charter Schools Advisory Board has recommended the K-12 school close its high school this summer. The recommendation to shut down the high school followed the discovery that 40 percent of Kestrel’s 399 graduates from 2008 to 2016 hadn’t completed the required credits.
The State Board of Education plans to discuss the recommendation Wednesday and possibly vote on it Thursday.
Questions about students transcripts arose in July as middle school principal April Goff stepped in to oversee a reconfigured Upper School, which includes grades six through 12.
The board didn’t renew the contract for the high school’s previous principal, Kim Yates, who was hired just before the 2014-15 school year. Goff became concerned after reviewing rising seniors’ transcripts. After an audit found problems with six of 20 students, the school contacted the state, which called for an audit of all graduates since the first graduating class in 2008.
That audit found 160 graduates short on credits.
The problems occurred despite the use of PowerSchool, a data warehouse that school systems across the state use to manage student information and track students’ progress toward a diploma.
“It literally tells you, you have not taken your English 3 course,” said Kestrel Heights executive director Mark Tracy. “It clearly articulates what is missing.”
Tracy said it was the school guidance counselor and principal’s responsibility to oversee the process.
Guidance counselor Lasaundra Vines, who resigned Sept. 2, referred questions to her attorney, who didn’t return calls to his office.
Former principals Yates and Tim Dugan, whose contract wasn’t renewed in 2014, couldn’t be reached for comment. The school had a fourth principal who was hired in 2014 but only stayed a few weeks.
Kestrel opened in 1998 as a middle school. Over the years, it added high-school grades and in 2012 opened an elementary school.
The school has never been able to get a 10-year charter renewal, instead receiving three-year renewals with conditions to meet. Concerns related to testing, exceptional children and teacher preparation.
Documents show state officials have raised concerns since 2009 about students not being enrolled in the proper classes, which could result in them not taking required tests at the appropriate time.
“There could be connections between these recurring issues and the school’s ability to appropriately graduate students,” said Deanna Townsend-Smith, assistant director of the Office of Charter Schools.
The school has about 350 high school students and about 1,020 students total. About 10 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged. It has a four-year graduation rate of 73.2 – before the discrepancies were discovered – which is slightly below the Durham Public Schools’ 82.1 percent rate.
To make up her classes, Gentry dropped an elective and took another class online.
Kestrel said the school is small and made her feel comfortable. “It is more of family than a lot of high schools are,” she said.
Meanwhile, Goff has been very helpful in helping her redo her classes, she said.
“I am out here to show the State Board of Education that the students care, and we feel like we shouldn’t be punished for an administration that was in the past and is not a part of the school any more,” she said.
Herald-Sun staff writer Gregory Childress contributed to this story.