Part I

Following a lengthy internal report conducted by school officials at Durham’s Kestrel Heights Charter School, which found that 40 percent of the high school diplomas Kestrel awarded to students since 2008 were unearned, the state advisory board charged with overseeing charter schools announced last week that they believe Kestrel Heights should lose its ability to run a high school.

“This cannot go without serious punishment,” said Charter School Advisory Board member Joe Maimone. “I believe this means that this group has shown that they cannot perform high school well and that they don’t deserve to run a high school program.”

While CSAB members took turns last week expressing outrage and indignation over the serious case of misconduct before them, one board member took a moment to say that the public shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that charter schools receive a lot of oversight.

“If this had been a traditional public school, do you think there would be a board sitting here—at the state level—sitting there talking about if this school is even going to exist anymore or not?” said Walker. “There’s oversight. If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do…you have to come in front of us—and we can be an ornery bunch of people—and we can close the school down.”

Unfortunately for many students who attended and still attend Kestrel Heights Charter School, that oversight came eight years too late.

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What has occurred at Kestrel Heights is a shocking case of misconduct. In a nutshell, here’s what happened: over a period of eight years, more than 150 students graduated from the charter school without having fulfilled the graduation requirements that were set forth in the school’s charter. Missed courses that were required for graduation included English, American and World History, Algebra, Biology, and Civics, among others.

One Kestrel Heights student told a local news station he was not surprised.

“I knew some shady stuff was going down personally,” junior Ian Campbell told WTVD. “I don’t think the administration pays much attention to education. They’re just focused on getting kids through.”

It appears that Kestrel Heights staff (the principal and guidance counselor) either failed to use or manipulated the data tools available to them to monitor students’ progress toward graduation requirements and ensure each student receiving a diploma was eligible for one.

Somehow, all of this went unnoticed for eight years. How did it come to an end? New leadership became aware of recent inconsistencies with student graduation data and took action. Instead of covering up the problem, it was reported to state officials.

Standing before the charter oversight board last week to give them his assessment of what transpired at Kestrel Heights, the executive director of the state’s Office of Charter Schools, Dave Machado (who once ran a charter school in Lincoln County), said he believes what happened is an isolated situation (his words) and “by no means a reflection on all charter high schools in the state of North Carolina.”

But whether or not Machado, whose office is charged with the administrative work of overseeing all 167 charter schools in the state, is in a position to make that assertion is questionable.

Deanna Townsend-Smith, assistant director for the Office of Charter Schools, said that the state does not closely monitor whether or not all 167 charter schools are awarding diplomas in line with state mandates and what is set forth in their charter agreements. That’s because in part, she said, charter schools are given some discretion and flexibility with regard to state mandated graduation standards, which creates a complicated web of requirements that is difficult for OCS to track.

“In statute it says charter schools must meet at a minimum the graduation requirements established by the State Board of Education,” said Townsend-Smith. “However there are cases where a school is approved to have some flexibility—for example, a charter school may not have to offer the exact math course that the state mandates and that flexibility is laid out in their charter agreement.”

That degree of flexibility, which theoretically can play out at any and all charter schools across the state, makes it very challenging for a staff of six at the Department of Public Instruction’s charter school office to monitor each and every charter school’s adherence to the graduation standards it lays out in its charter agreement.

“It’s just not feasible,” said Townsend-Smith. “There are so many different nuances that come into play.”

OCS’ director Dave Machado buttressed Townsend-Smith’s comments last week, adding that the state does conduct site visits to charter schools, but they happen on a sporadic basis due to the limited capacity of OCS. Ultimately, Machado said, verification of student graduation data lies squarely on the shoulders of each school’s administrators and board of directors.

OCS did conduct a site visit at Kestrel Heights in January 2014 and raised concerns over school officials’ failure to enter data for all students into the student tracking software called PowerSchool — a database that public schools use to track student information, including courses completed and how students are progressing toward graduation.

But there was no evidence presented this week to suggest that the state followed up on that red flag. And based on comments made by OCS staff and CSAB members, there appears to be no way to know for certain this scandal isn’t occurring at other charter schools around the state, either.

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Kestrel Heights was one of the first charter schools to open in the state. In 1997 lawmakers declared North Carolina open for business to the charter school industry, but limited the number of charters that can exist to 100. In 2011, that cap was lifted and the state has witnessed a quick surge in the number of operational charters, now at 167.

Publicly funded charter schools get some flexibility in how to operate, unlike traditional public schools. They are afforded significant latitude in the type of curricula they can design and deliver, with the idea that if charter schools have the space to try new teaching and learning methods, then this kind of innovation would then spur traditional public schools to implement some of those best practices.

There are very vocal critics of some of the other elements of charter school flexibility. Charter schools don’t have to provide students access to a lunch program and they don’t have to provide transportation, which many advocates acknowledge sets up a scenario where poorer students have a difficult time attending charter schools.

Finally, there is the issue of accountability for charter schools. Advocates for charter schools say that charters are more accountable than traditional public schools because their efforts to educate students are heavily scrutinized by a state oversight panel — and the possibility of a charter school’s closure looms large if they don’t deliver results. Traditional public schools that are deemed ‘failing,’ on the other hand, typically don’t get shut down, advocates say.

But critics say laws and regulations aren’t strong enough for charter schools. For-profit managed charter schools can hide how they spend public dollars by siphoning those funds into unaccountable private companies and pay administrator salaries and other expenses from behind a curtain.

Charter schools are also operated by nonprofit boards that comprise community members who are not elected and are sometimes not plugged into the day-to-day business operations of a charter school. That means there’s not a layer of close oversight that mirrors the locally elected school boards and central office staff that are charged with overseeing traditional public schools.

So if you’re asking why the diploma scandal at Kestrel Heights wasn’t caught by state officials overseeing charter schools, that’s because it appears that there’s not a surefire way for the state to have been aware that this was occurring had Kestrel not self-reported the information. When it comes to verification of student graduation data, no one is systematically checking behind charter school leaders’ work in verifying student progression toward graduation—not even the nonprofit board members who are responsible for the success of their charter school.

Charter School Advisory Board member Tony Helton acknowledged this gap, saying to his fellow CSAB members this week that charter schools’ nonprofit board members likely never drop into a school and check for themselves how student data is being managed.

“Let’s be honest,” said Helton, “you know that boards of directors do not go and check the student records to see if they had United States History. The school leader trusts the folks that work for she or he.” Helton then said a board should conduct an audit when, for example, the state Office of Charter Schools notices discrepancies in student records during a site visit—which is what happened in the case of Kestrel Heights in 2014.

It has become clear that state’s Office of Charter Schools lacks the capacity and directive to systematically ensure each year that charter high schools are not handing out faulty diplomas. State officials say it’s up to individual schools and their nonprofit boards to provide that kind of accountability.

But if nonprofit boards aren’t engaged or equipped to provide the necessary layer of accountability for charter schools, and the state can’t do it either, then what are we left with?

Part II of this post will explore how traditional public schools handle verification of student graduation data.

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