As I discussed earlier this week, Kestrel Heights Charter School in Durham handed out 160 unearned diplomas between 2008-2016, which not only raises grave concerns about how this could have happened at one school—but whether or not this could be happening at other charter schools as well. (Check out my story here for more on that.)
It also raised this question for me: can what happened at Kestrel Heights occur at traditional public schools as well?
As with charter schools, the state Department of Public Instruction does not monitor student graduation data for traditional public schools. Instead, they rely on the word of school principals as well as local school districts’ central offices (known formally as Local Education Agencies, or LEAs) to monitor and ensure that diplomas are awarded in good faith.
Nora Carr, chief of staff for Guilford County Schools, said that at the end of the day, principals and counselors are the ones who bear the final responsibility for handing out high school diplomas that are legitimately earned—just as is the case with charter schools.
But Guilford County also draws on the central office’s resources to implement its own accountability system, too, said Carr.
“GCS has hired retired school counselors to check transcripts and verification on a random basis,” said Carr. “If those spot checks flagged any concerns or patterns, we take a deeper look.”
Carr noted these steps are not required by state law, but Guilford takes student graduation data very seriously.
A spokesman for Wake County Public Schools, Matt Dees, described their system of accountability at the district level when it comes to ensuring students are meeting the necessary requirements for graduation.
“The WCPSS Counseling Department provides regular training and support around these structures to Deans and Counselors each year,” said Dees. “Monthly meetings with HS Deans are often focused around graduation verification data and related processes. The Director of Counseling and her office consult individually with counselors and Deans almost daily to provide support and oversight. This often includes periodic spot checks of individual student transcripts.”
In addition to this layer of accountability at the district level, another element that makes the act of graduating a student a more transparent and accountable process is that traditional public schools are required to use a student information tracking database called PowerSchool, which generates standardized transcripts that make it easy for administrators as well as parents to catch when a student has missed completing a required course for graduation.
There has been at least one instance where a traditional public high school handed out unearned diplomas. Charlotte’s Garinger High School handed out 11 unearned diplomas back in 2011 at a time when a guidance counselor position was vacant.
How did this get caught? Central office staff played a role.
“Upon completing the graduation credit analysis we realized there were students who were not eligible to graduate,” said Karen Thomas, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools central office administrator in charge of counseling, in an interview with WCNC.
The fact that eleven high school students at Garinger received diplomas they didn’t earn should have never happened — a central office staffer alerted the high school early on, and school administrators failed to rectify the situation in time for graduation, according to a Charlotte Observer story. But the central office followed up, which resulted in families being notified and the principal resigning.
It was a one time incident that, fortunately, did not persist over several years.
Like charter schools, each traditional public school bears the ultimate responsibility for handing out to students diplomas that were earned. But unlike charter schools, traditional public schools can rely on an elected school board and central office staff to help ensure robust levels of transparency and accountability are upheld.
Charter schools, on the other hand, must rely on a tiny and resource-strapped state charter school office overseeing hundreds of schools across the state. And, of course, they can rely on their own nonprofit board members—but those board members are often not engaged in the day-to day-operations of a school.
It’s a scenario that makes it nearly impossible to ensure that charter school administrators have the necessary resources to lead a school and are acting with skill and integrity. Instead, the system that is in place is to rely on individual actors’ good will and sense of what is right—which works most, but not all, of the time.