Durham charter school gave diplomas to students who didn’t earn them

Leaders of Kestrel Heights School told state charter school officials Thursday that at least 53 students were given high school diplomas without meeting state graduation requirements.

Representatives from the Durham charter school said the former guidance counselor and former high school principal did not notice that the students didn’t have enough credits to graduate. Mark Tracy, Kestrel Heights’ executive director, said they’ve determined issues with at least 53 students over the past three years, and the problem could go further back.

Kestrel, a 1,016-student K-12 school that opened in 1998, has been graduating students since 2008. The 53 students represent nearly a third of Kestrel’s 173 graduates since 2014.

“When I communicated to the principal at the time and the counselor at the time, they assured me they had done transcript reviews and addressed all transcripts at that point,” Tracy told members of the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board. “Based on all evidence, it seems as if they did not do a quality job of following the checks and balances they had described to me.”

Within the past week, Tracy said, Kestrel has contacted this year’s 22 graduates identified as not meeting requirements, some of whom are now in college or the military. He said the school has offered them options such as help in taking the missing courses.

For the students who don’t take the missing classes, the school is seeking state approval to issue its own school diploma in lieu of the state diploma they had previously received. Advisory members were skeptical that could be done or even if it would be a valid document.

“You’ve got students admitted into universities under false information,” said advisory board member Tony Helton.

The advisory board met in closed session with their attorney Thursday to discuss potential recommendations to the State Board of Education. A recommendation could come Friday.

Alex Quigley, chairman of the advisory board, commended Kestrel Heights for self-reporting the problem. But he also criticized the school for not moving more quickly to deal with the situation after it was uncovered.

“It goes without saying that this is unacceptable,” Quigley said. “This is something of significance.”

Tracy said the new high school principal, who started this summer, first discovered a potential issue in July when reviewing records of the class of 2017. He said the review expanded to discover issues in past years.

It was unclear whether the errors were deliberate, although some advisory board members raised that suspicion Thursday.

“At the end of the day we should have done better,” Tracy said. “Our students deserve better. We did not do what we need to do to meet the needs of our students.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded schools that are exempt from some regulations that traditional public schools must follow. Steven Walker, vice chairman of the advisory board, said Kestrel’s problem isn’t unique to charters because it has also happened at traditional public schools.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui