Durham News

State Board of Education votes to close Durham’s Kestrel Heights High School

Kestrel Heights officials expressed disappointment Thursday at the State Board of Education’s decision to close Kestrel’s high school because the school awarded diplomas to students who didn’t meet state requirements for graduation.

The board voted unanimously to close the high school but agreed to grant Kestrel a three-year charter to operate its kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school.

“We’re disheartened for our 350-plus students and their families because they are a great group of kids,” said Mark Tracy, Kestrel’s executive director.

Parent Angela Bobbitt said the decision was punitive and political.

“Instead of giving them an opportunity to fix the issue, they’re punishing them,” Bobbitt said. “It feels like the state board is trying to make an example out of a charter school.”

Bobbitt’s mother, Janice Guess, who spends time at the school, said the students there work hard and are under a lot of pressure because of the diploma issue.

“We’ve seen these kids working their hearts out to give their school a good reputation,” Guess said. “We feel the state school board is not being fair. These children didn’t have anything to do with the school’s problems.”

Kestrel, a public charter school, has been under intense scrutiny since an internal investigation found that 160 of Kestrel’s 399 graduates since 2008 didn’t meet the state’s requirements for a high school diploma.

State board members said the decision to close Kestrel was tough but they had to hold the school accountable.

“This is the ultimate in accountability,” said Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who sits on the board. “Nobody ever wants to have to do this, but it’s necessary in this instance.”

State board member Becky Taylor said imposing a three-year moratorium on the high school will give Kestrel Height time “to regroup, revise its procedures and invest the necessary attention required by this board to ensure the possibility of operating a high school at a future time.”

A.L. Collins, the state board vice chairman, supported the decision reluctantly and said the state must develop a way to avoid punishing students for mistakes made by adults.

He said a traditional public school in the same situation would not be forced to close.

“Some other remedy would be available,” Collins said.

While disappointed, Tracy agreed that the decision gives Kestrel an opportunity to “reflect and to see what we can do better.”

He noted that the public charter school has run a successful K-8 program and will continue to do so.

“Our K-8 has been of the best and highest performing in the area and we will continue to provide a quality K-8 education for our students,” Tracy said.

He said the school’s board of directors will decide whether to appeal the decision. It has 10 days to do so.

Tracy said Kestrel will work with parents of current high school students to ensure they find the right schools to meet their educational needs.

Unless it launches a successful appeal, Kestrel will officially become a K-8 school July 1.

Progress reports

The school will operate under the watchful eye of state education officials.

The state board ordered Kestrel to appear before the Charter School Advisory Board every six months to update the board on its progress.

And as part of the SBE’s decision, Kestrel must agree to not add high school grades for at least three years or risk losing its K-8 charter.

The school must also provide an “appropriate remedy” to former students who have invalid diplomas because of missing courses and provide a monthly report to the Office of Charter Schools.

Kestrel reported last month that one-third of the 160 former Kestrel Heights charter school students who graduated short of requirements may not know their diplomas are invalid.

The school has yet to hear from 54 students despite sending letters and making phone calls.

Meanwhile, 50 students have met with Kestrel officials, 31 have contacted the school and 26 have resolved their credit deficiencies, according to a Feb. 13 letter from Kestrel Heights Board Chairman Brandon Paris to State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey.

The school anticipates resolving all of the cases by the end of the 2017-18 school year, the letter states.

Principals, counselor gone

Kestrel leaders have blamed two former principals and a former school counselor for awarding the diplomas to Kestrel seniors who didn’t meet graduation requirements.

One of the former principals, Tim Dugan, is also one of the school’s founders.

The school’s board of directors was roundly criticized by parents in 2014 when it refused to renew Dugan’s contract because of concerns about his leadership not related to the diploma scandal.

Dugan was replaced by Kimberly Yates in August 2014. Yates is no longer at the school, either.

April Goff, the current high school principal at Kestrel, has been credited with discovering the problem with Kestrel transcripts as 2016 seniors prepared to graduate last June.

The discovery led Kestrel’s leadership to report the findings to state officials.

Kestrel leaders have said they found no evidence that the actions of the former principals or former counselor were “willful, intentional, or done with malice.”

Childress: 919-419-6645; @gchild6645