Transcripts of high school students enrolled in charter schools are getting a closer look after problems with diplomas at a Durham school brought renewed attention to oversight.
From the time Kestrel Heights Charter School started its high school, 40 percent of graduates awarded diplomas didn’t have the proper credits. The state Office of Charter Schools, the agency responsible for oversight, didn’t catch the problem at Kestrel Heights Charter School. The school reported itself after a new principal noticed problems.
Students were missing required credits in everything from American history to math to English. An investigation found the problem stretched back to Kestrel Heights’ first graduating class in 2008.
In response, the State Board of Education shut down the high school. Kestrel Heights’ elementary and middle schools were allowed to stay open.
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Some public school leaders say more oversight is needed. Charters are governed by their own volunteer boards. The state charter school office, which employees eight people, provides guidance and oversight.
“It puzzles me why we’re so quick to privatize or turn to the private sector to handle this money without solid oversight and accountability,” Durham school board member Natalie Beyer said. An independent board runs Kestrel.
Durham students in traditional public schools would be less likely to graduate without the proper credits because they have more than one or two staff members examining their transcripts.
Durham Public Schools check high school transcripts using a multi-tiered system that includes internal and external audits, said Elizabeth Shearer, executive director of student support services.
“We’re just very serious about students, when they have a Durham Public Schools diploma, that it’s authentic and has meaning, and it meets state graduation requirements,” she said.
State workers responsible for monitoring charter schools will add checking high school transcripts to their list of duties, said Dave Machado, director of the state charter school office.
“I do believe this is an isolated situation,” Machado said of Kestrel. “This brought to our attention that we need to do a better job auditing some of the transcripts.”
Charter high schools graduated 2,000 students in 2015, with 68 graduating from Kestrel.
Kestrel placed the responsibility for the faulty diplomas on a former guidance counselor and two former principals. The State Board of Education asked for a criminal investigation.
Workers at the charter school office, called consultants, will audit transcripts when the office visits schools that are applying for charter renewals, Machado said. Seven charter high schools are up for renewal this year.
The audits will typically look at one or two years worth of transcripts. If consultants find irregularities, they’ll go back further.
The office will also begin random checks of high schools, he said.
The charter office annually reviews student achievement at each school. It checks them for compliance with state and federal laws, and whether the schools’ operations match the promises made in their applications.
Schools must also provide annual financial audits.
Charter school office staff members visit new schools once or twice a year, where they meet with school leaders and go into every classroom. Established schools that aren’t working well, based on student test scores and reports on operations, get several visits from the charter office staff in a year.
The staff visits schools it determines are working well at least once every five years and in the year a school requests a charter renewal. The State Board of Education can award charters for terms up to 10 years.