It began with a tip from two Kestrel Heights Charter School staff members. They pulled aside Kestrel’s executive director Mark Tracy on his visit to the Durham K-12 charter and told him they were worried two seniors did not have the credits to graduate. That tip set off an internal investigation by Kestrel, which revealed past school administrators had been giving out faulty diplomas for years. Since 2008, 40 percent of Kestrel students received a diploma without meeting the state requirements.
"It’s a true embarrassment to everything that we try to be about here and what charter schools are," said Eric Sanchez, a state charter school advisory board member, during the board's discussion of the findings last week.
Sanchez and other board members decided to recommend revoking Kestrel’s right to run its high school. Kestrel would still be allowed to serve grades K-8. Sanchez said the punishment was meant to set a strong precedent. But he had concerns Kestrel has raised questions about all charter high schools.
"The kinds of questions that come up are 'Should there be increased oversight?'and things like that," Sanchez said. "I mean, the bottom line is you can’t oversee everything."
State law says the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the integrity of students’ diplomas rests with the school principal. The state takes principals at their word. No one from the department of public instruction is checking up on whether students have met the requirements - not at charter schools, or traditional public schools. That’s one reason why Kestrel was able to give out faulty diplomas for eight years.
North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association Executive Director Lee Teague said Kestrel's findings are a moment for pause.
"While this does not occur at every charter school or every traditional school, there is the potential there for this to happen at other places," he said. "That's why the penalty was so severe."
But Office of Charter Schools Director Dave Machado said he’s confident the Kestrel debacle was an isolated incident.
"The operators of our charter high schools are good, smart educators," he said. "And if they want their high schools to stay full, they have got to be able to deliver a high school diploma to get them into college."
Machado used to run a charter school. He said he doesn’t think an additional layer of oversight is needed.
"Having run a high school, I don’t know what that layer could be," he said.
Elizabeth Shearer has some ideas. She oversees student support services for Durham Public Schools, which has about 34,000 students. While traditional public schools don’t have a layer of state oversight either, schools in a district like Durham have a layer of oversight from the district’s central office.
"You need a team to really be scrutinizing reports," Shearer said.
Durham schools do internal audits, in which high school counselors check 10 percent of each other’s transcripts. And they do external audits, where district leaders check a percentage of a school’s transcripts too.
"It’s checks and balances," Shearer said. "And it makes sure that there is someone coming up behind, and there are no situations where there’s only one set of eyes looking at a student’s transcript."
Most charter schools have nowhere near the administrative resources Durham has. And for many charter school advocates, that’s exactly the point: more freedom, less bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for charter high schools to have one counselor and one principal in charge of all the scheduling, like at Kestrel Heights.
Charter school advisory board chair Alex Quigley said Kestrel’s problems show there is room for improvement. He said it might make sense for office of charter school staff to look into transcript issues when they do site visits at charter high schools.
"There are mechanisms that we could create to do some checks on this type of thing, he said. "Part of the challenge is capacity. You know, we have a limited staff, and we have a lot of schools. "
The office of charter schools has six employees charged with visiting the state’s 167 charter schools.
While the advisory board contemplates possible changes, Kestrel is in limbo, especially the hundreds of Kestrel Heights high school students. The advisory board’s recommendation means that starting next school year, Kestrel Heights high may not be around to come back to. It will be up to the state board of education to make the final decision on the school’s future.