Durham County

Kestrel Heights High School awaits its fate

Kestrel Heights charter school officials, students and parents expect to learn Thursday whether the State Board of Education will allow its high school to remain open.

The board discussed Kestrel when it met Wednesday but will decide the fate of the high school when it meets Thursday.

The public K-12 charter school has been under fire since an internal investigation found that 160 of Kestrel’s 399 graduates since 2008 didn’t meet the requirements for a high school diploma. The state board discussed the school’s fate Wednesday, and some board members seemed to lean in favor of following the Charter School Advisory Board recommendation to close the high school.

“This boils down to an accountability issue, a school not following the rules,” said board member Olivia Oxendine, adding that the school has done a disservice to students and the entire charter school community.

Under the Charter School Advisory Board recommendation, Kestrel would be allowed to operate a K-8 school with a three-year charter instead of the 10-year charter it has sought.

Other State Board of Education members said Wednesday that they intend to support the charter board’s recommendation, while one of them wondered if the school is capable of running a K-8 program.

Kestrel’s charter expires this year. The school was being considered for a 10-year renewal.

The state board was expected to rule on the charter board’s recommendation in February but postponed the decision until this month.

Brandon Paris, chairman of Kestrel’s Board of Directors, sent members of the state board a letter in advance of Wednesday’s meeting outlining steps the school has taken to ensure such academic missteps do not happen again.

Paris said Kestrel has hired Tom Miller of “Leaders Building Leaders” to consult with its board of directors and to provided training on governance. “This work is already underway and yielding positive results,” Paris wrote.

He also said the school is exploring a partnership with TeamCFA Foundation as a Challenge Foundation Academy. TeamCFA supports the development of academically rigorous and financially sustainable charter schools.

“While the exact structure of this partnership is still being explored, it would include additional oversight, additional curriculum and academic support for all grades and potential control of the high school for three years,” Paris wrote.

If the state board decides to close Kestrel’s high school, it would impact about 325 students who would presumably return next year.

Paris said the uncertainty surrounding the school’s future has made it tough for parents to plan for next year.

“As our families and others are currently considering their education options for the 2017-2018 school year, we hope they will choose Kestrel Heights,” Paris said. “But any further delay in the decision by the State Board of Education will significantly impact our parents’ abilities to make plans for the upcoming school year.”

Paris said closing the high school could also have financial implications for the entire organization.

“For example, the lease on our high school facility will not expire if our charter is not renewed and will severely impact the school’s operating budget,” Paris wrote. “In short, we’re concerned that closing the high school will put our entire organization at risk.”

Kestrel reported last month that one-third of the 160 former Kestrel Heights charter school students who graduated without meeting state requirements may not know their diplomas are invalid.

The school has yet to hear from 54 students despite sending letters and making phone calls. School officials are also using social media and other efforts to reach them, executive director Mark Tracy said.

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 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.

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 due to concerns about his leadership not related to the diploma scandal.

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

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.”

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645