Durham News

Problems at Durham’s Kestrel Heights charter date to at least 2008

Kestrel Heights High School junior Faye Gant, right, leads the crowd in chanting during a “Save Our School” rally in January. The NC State Board of Education is expected to discuss the matter at its meetings March 1-2.
Kestrel Heights High School junior Faye Gant, right, leads the crowd in chanting during a “Save Our School” rally in January. The NC State Board of Education is expected to discuss the matter at its meetings March 1-2. The Herald-Sun | Kaitlin McKeown

Problems at Kestrel Heights, a Durham K-12 charter school, burst into public view in December, but state education officials have been documenting various issues at the school since at least 2008.

This week, school officials, parents and students will find out if the school will be forced to close its high school because of some of those issues.

State education officials are debating the school’s future after an investigation revealed 160 students graduated without required credits between 2008 and 2016. The investigation came after the school reported the issue. But the Office of Charter Schools questioned Kestrel’s management of student class enrollment in 2009, 2011 and 2014, according to state documents.

Those concerns were raised in site visits and charter renewal evaluations, and focused on the challenges improper enrollment caused in administering required state tests.

“There were issues with students not being enrolled in the proper courses just about every year,” states a September 2009 report written by an N.C. Department of Public Instruction employee, who had worked with the school several years.

There had also been concerns in previous years about the school’s accountability, finances, policies and student growth, according to documents.

It appeared the school had addressed those and other concerns enough that it was on track to receive a 10-year charter last year. It would have been the first time the school, which opened in 1998, received more than a three-year charter.

Then state officials learned that 40 percent of Kestrel’s 399 graduates did not receive required credits. Instead of moving forward with the 10-year recommendation, the Charter Schools Advisory Board recommended in January that Kestrel receive a three-year charter and that the high school close for at least three years.

“These people have no business in trying to run a high school,” advisory board member Alan Hawkes, a Greensboro businessman, said in an interview. “Inept. Incompetent. It’s unconscionable what they did. Reprehensible.”

Since 1997, about 14 charters have been revoked and five haven’t been renewed.

Charter schools get flexibility to be innovative and try new things. They receive state and local funding, but don’t have to meet the same teacher and guidance counselor licensure requirements as traditional public schools. And while charters don’t have to follow the state curriculum guidelines, their students still need to meet state graduation credit requirements.

“On the flip side of that is being accountable,” Hawkes said. “A school like Kestrel Heights, you are not going to get the principal removed and some of the staff and then a whole lot of money thrown at it to turn it around. You are not going to get that with a public charter school. That is not part of the deal.”

Staff, students and parents defend Kestrel. They say the high school shouldn’t be shut down since the people responsible for the problems are gone. Kestrel Heights reported the graduation error in October after a new principal discovered the issue as she transitioned into the job over the summer.

“We have come forward because we have nothing to hide,” said executive director Mark Tracy. “The people here trusted (principals and counselors) to do the right thing, and they didn’t.”

The students with invalid degrees have to make up credits through independent study or online courses. Some students get credit for completed college courses.

Kestrel has about 1,031 students in K-12. If the high school closed, 328 students would have to find a new school, according to information provided by Kestrel The school uses Paideia Principles, which seeks to inform and engage students through a learning process that culminates with seminar discussions.

Rae Hope initially planned to keep her 16-year-old son Qadmon, a sophomore at Kestrel, at the school.

However, they have started applying and searching for a new school, concerned about other issues popping up in future years and of a stigma being associated with his college application.

The decision has nothing to do with the current faculty, she said.

“It’s too rocky, right now,” she said.

Tracy declined to say how many students had withdrawn from the school since the error became public in December. About 600 parents have responded to intent forms asking about their plans for next year, Tracy said, and 95 percent indicated they are returning.

Reports

Site visits and reports from 2009, 2011 and 2014 noted problems related to state tests.

A January 2014 site visit report, prepared by Office of Charter Schools personnel as the school sought charter renewal, pointed out that students still weren’t listed in PowerSchool, a database that tracks student enrollment and credits.

The report was cited in a State Board of Education agenda document for its Feb. 1-2 meetings, when the board planned to discuss Kestrel’s charter renewal. The board postponed the discussion and possible decision on the school’s charter to its meetings on Wednesday and Thursday.

The agenda information points out that the Office of Charter Schools told Kestrel in November 2014 that the school should “work with testing coordinator to ensure proper placement of all students in grade levels and classes.”

The Department of Public Instruction hasn’t fulfilled a Feb. 2 public records request asking for correspondence between the state and Kestrel Heights following its site visits and evaluations.

There is some connection between the issues mentioned in the reports and the graduation concerns, wrote Deanna Townsend-Smith, Office of Charter Schools assistant director, in an email to The News & Observer.

“If a student is not enrolled in a class correctly, then the student may not receive the appropriate test at the appropriate time,” she wrote.

Linked but different

Tracy said the graduation error and the concerns cited in the reports were related in that a guidance counselor oversaw both processes. LaSaundra Vines had been Kestrel’s high school guidance counselor since at least 2008, according to state documents. She resigned Sept. 2.

Vines referred questions to her attorney, Ralph Frasier. Frasier hasn’t returned numerous phone messages left at his office. The State Board of Education referred the case to Durham County District Attorney Roger Echols, who couldn’t be reached for comment.

Other people were involved in the larger process that led to the administrative testing issues raised in the reports.

In an interview, Tracy linked the issues discussed in the reports to students transferring in and out of courses in the first 20 days of school, and those changes not being reported properly.

He said that school officials have changed the record-keeping process to address those concerns. The issue that led to students not graduating with valid degrees is different, Tracy said. That was the guidance counselor’s fundamental responsibility.

“The way I look at it, the principals trusted the counselor,” he said. “The counselor said, ‘We are good’ and they took the counselor’s word for it.”

Efforts to reach former principals Kim Yates, whose contract wasn’t renewed in 2015, and Tim Dugan, whose contract wasn’t renewed in 2014, were unsuccessful.

From math to physical education

Each year the percentage of students who didn’t have enough credits ranged from 14.8 percent of the 61 graduates in 2013 to 83 percent of the 69 graduates in 2015.

Student transcripts weren’t altered, Tracy said. It appears the counselor didn’t clearly understand state graduation requirements, Tracy added.

The deficient classes included required courses such as English, math, biology and physical education.

In some cases students who took physical education didn’t complete a required health component, and students who took U.S. History 1 didn’t complete U.S. History 2.  

Kestrel Heights senior Dana Gentry recently said she thought she had finished her English classes but found out at the start of this year that she had to take two more.

Gentry had taken two college-level English writing classes at Durham Technical Community College, Tracy said. Those two courses, however, didn’t meet the state core requirements of English 3 and English 4.

Questions about the students’ transcripts arose in July as Kestrel’s middle school principal, April Goff, was stepping in to oversee a reconfigured Upper School, which includes grades six through 12.

Goff became concerned after reviewing rising seniors’ transcripts. After auditing 20, she was concerned that six students didn’t have needed graduation credits. The school reported the issue to the state in October, which eventually called for an audit of all graduates.

The school has since increased student meetings and transcript reviews.

Many parents and current students have been fighting for the school, saying they enjoy the cozy environment and don’t want to have to move to a new school in the middle of their high school experience.

“We have come forward because we have nothing to hide,” Tracy said. “The people here trusted those in places to do the right thing, and they didn’t.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges

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