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NC Charter School Graduated 160 Students Who Lacked Coursework

March 21, 2017

In (or after) March 2017, the North Carolina State Board of Education is supposed to decide whether or not to close Kestrel Heights High School. Information on Kestrel Heights was presented to the board on March 1 and 2, 2017. It seems that the state board has indeed decided to close the school.**

Kestrel Heights made the news in January 2017 following the release of an internal report by the Kestrel Heights board of directors.

It seems that over an eight-year time span, Kestrel Heights graduated 160 students who lacked all of the necessary coursework to graduate.

From the report:

In September of 2016, the Board of Directors (“The Board’) of Kestrel Heights, a public charter school located in Durham, North Carolina, currently providing K-12 education to 1,016 students, was informed of discrepancies in the transcripts of approximately 22 seniors in the graduating class of 2015-16. The discrepancies appeared to indicate that 22 of the 71 graduating seniors were missing at least one state-mandated core curriculum course required to graduate with a Future Ready Core designation on their transcript. The printed student transcripts disclosed that the student graduated with a Future Ready Core designation, but also disclosed that the student was missing one or more of the state mandated core curriculum courses, such as “English 4.”

Upon learning of the discrepancies, the Board ordered a subsequent review of the analysis conducted by staff for the 2015-16 graduating class. After receiving a verified report, the Board self-disclosed the discrepancies to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s (“DPI”) Office of Charter School (“OCS”) and scheduled an advisory meeting. At the meeting, the school disclosed the results of its initial investigation and a corrective action plan to the assembly of DPI staff, including representatives from Accountability, Instruction, OCS, and Legal. The staff of DPI was unable to provide any technical support or assistance during the meeting. The school was subsequently advised by the OCS to handle the matter in the best way it saw fit. The school undertook a second review of its corrective action plan by retaining the services of an outside education consulting firm. The outside education consulting firm assisted the school with the development of student centered options to address the transcript deficiencies in a timely and efficient manner.

In the interim, the Charter School Advisory Board (“CSAB”) met with the Board of Directors and Executive Staff to discuss the dilemma. On December 5, 2016, the CSAB unanimously voted to require the school conduct an internal investigation spanning back to 2008 when the High School opened to determine the actual extent of the problem and provide a detailed investigatory report to it and the State Board of Education (“SBE”) on or before January 3, 2017. The CSAB further requested that OCS place the school on probationary status for “governance” concerns, and withdraw its previous recommendation of a 10-year charter renewal to the SBE. The SBE subsequently referred the matter to the Durham County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether criminal wrongdoing had occurred.

The results of the school’s internal investigation found that between 2008 and 2016, of the 399 total graduates, 160 have received a diploma without tangible evidences of meeting all requirements. With one limited exception, there was no discernable pattern to the majority of missing courses as the courses ranged from English 3 or 4 to Geometry or Algebra 2 to Physical Science and Physical Education. However, the internal investigation did reveal that approximately 54 of the graduated students are identified because they took American History I (Pre-Civil War), but not American History II (Post Civil War) due to an error in scheduling not detected by the high school principal or high school guidance counselor at the time. [Emphasis added.]

As the report continues, it seems that the Kestrel Heights board of directors actually contacted students who had already been awarded diplomas possibly several years earlier in order to have these students correct the school’s error:

The school has made or attempted to make contact with all the identified students. The school and students in most cases have agreed to cure the deficiency by several means:

1. Credit Attainment or Recovery Through Kestrel Heights Administered Proficiency Exam

2. Transfer of Credit based on Approved Course Taken Through an Accredited Institution

3. Proof that a required course was previously completed but not properly reflected on the transcript.

For those students unable to demonstrate mastery due to the lapse of time, the school is offering tutoring services or the opportunity for the student to take the course during its currently scheduled offering. As of January 3, 2017, no students have chosen not to obtain the Future Ready Core designation on their high school transcripts and those students the Board has approved amending their transcript to reflect a “Kestrel Heights” designation if they meet all other established criteria and have at least 22 credit hours.

A “‘Kestrel Heights’ designation” appears shaky, kind of like a *Rollexx*, especially after 2012-13: “Future Ready Core” is the state-required coursework for a diploma in North Carolina beginning in 2012-13.

As for the culprits in this eight-year-long fiasco, well, they’re no longer employed at the school:

The previous administration in the high school, along with the high school counselor were separated from the employment of the school on June 30, 2016 (principal) and September 2, 2016 (counselor), respectively. Effective July 1, 2016, the Board merged the administration of the middle and high schools to create a new Upper School, and the existing middle school principal was promoted to principal of the new Upper School.

Moreover, the Kestrel Heights board of directors has outlined a “corrective action plan” that demonstrates a level of (dare I write) accountability that should have been in place in 2008:

A corrective action plan has been implemented, which includes the use of a current and aligned program of study for grades 9-12, multiple meetings and review dates calendared throughout the academic year with each individual student and the student’s parent in grades 9-12, monthly reviews of academic progress by the high school leadership team for all juniors and seniors, and final review by the upper school principal/designee and the counselor to review senior credit hours within the first 20 days of school and the last 20 days of school prior to graduation.

A question hanging in the air concerns whether the dismissed principal and counselor just decided to graduate students regardless of students’ meeting coursework requirements for the sake of boosting graduation rates. Plus, it seems that such was easy enough to do with no off-site entity apparently regularly auditing the transcripts.

Bringing the issue into the open in the first place required whistle blowers– which happened to be two staff members:

On June 7, 2016, two Kestrel Heights staff members stopped the Executive Director while he was monitoring the High School. Separately these staff members expressed a concern that several students were on the list to walk across the stage during graduation, but they had not met the graduation requirements.

I am a believer in external audits.

Kestrel Heights’ charter is set to expire in June 2017. North Carolina’s state board apparently has the final word. However, the charter school advisory board wants to renew the charter– but only for grades K-8. From the March 02, 2017, NC state board meeting agenda:

2017 Renewal Activity:

As part of the renewal process, the Office of Charter Schools (OCS) compiled a renewal portfolio for each school; the portfolio consists of information gathered through examined DPI compliance forms and a renewal site visit to each school, and academic and enrollment data from the school and the LEA in which the school resides.  During the completion of this process, discrepancies of academic transcripts of graduated seniors of Kestrel Heights was reported by Kestrel Heights to the OCS.  As a result, Kestrel Heights Charter School’s renewal recommendation was delayed pending further investigation. On January 11, 2017, after further investigation, the Charter School Advisory Board (CSAB) made the following recommendation:

Kestrel Heights charter be renewed for a period of 3 years with five (5) stipulations:

  1. Effective July 1, 2017, the charter is amended to the grades served on grades Kindergarten through 8th grade.
  2. That Kestrel Heights, at no cost to current or former students, provide an appropriate remedy to the failure to provide an appropriate education that resulted in a Future Ready Core diploma, and that the remedy may not be a Kestrel Heights designated diploma monthly report.
  3. That Kestrel Heights continue to make extensive efforts to contact all impacted former students and provide a monthly report to the Office of Charter Schools of those efforts and the results of those efforts.
  4. That Kestrel Heights appear before the Charter Schools Advisory Board every six months to update the board on its progress.
  5. Kestrel Heights must agree to no grade expansion to high school for its charter term.

**Correction made after I originally posted: Board voted in March to close Kestrel Heights.

My thanks to A. P. Dillon for the correction.


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. Dr. Schneider,

    While your dislike for charters is apparent, you should know that the students in that area love the school and fought hard to keep it open.

    You should perhaps research NC Charter school rules before assuming all states are alike.
    In terms of accountability, Charters in NC are public schools and have the same measures in place as traditional public schools — in fact, they are more stringently applied.

    If something goes awry at a charter in NC, in most cases they are shut down. At a very minimum they are put on probation, whereas a traditional public school with issues will remain open for decades.

    Case in point, the school’s fate is not in “limbo.” The State board voted to close Kestral’s high school at their meeting at the beginning of March.

    • If the oversight were stringent, we would not be reading in 2017 about student transcript folly as far back as 2008 yet only recently discovered, and via whistle blowing.

      Thanks for the final word on the closure. So, no more Kestrel Heights.

      • The Accountability is stringent. Once the allegations came out, action was swift.

        Oversight at Charters is the same as Traditional Schools. Half our kids can’t read at grade level. Have we closed those schools? No.

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