Kestrel Heights officials planning for the future in light of uncertain present

Kestrel Heights School executive director Mark Tracy, left, takes part in Thursday night’s community discussion about the school’s future. The woman at right was not identified.
Kestrel Heights School executive director Mark Tracy, left, takes part in Thursday night’s community discussion about the school’s future. The woman at right was not identified.

Kestrel Heights leaders said Thursday, March 16, that the future of the high school remains uncertain pending a State Board of Education (SBE) panel review of its decision to close it.

But leaders told about 40 parents attending a community meeting that Kestrel is moving forward with efforts to improve its K-8 offerings while working to keep the high school open.

“We want to fight for you guys and want our story to be told,” said Glenna Boston, vice chairman of the school’s Board of Directors, who grew emotional.

Executive Director Mark Tracy said those Kestrel’s efforts to improve K-8 will focus on academics, the culture of the school and enrichment opportunities.

“Obviously we’re disappointed with the situation we’re in but it does provide us an opportunity to take a step back and take a look at what we need to do to move forward,” Tracy said.

The SBE voted unanimously March 2 to order Kestrel to close its high school because the school awarded diplomas to students who didn’t meet state requirements for graduation.

An internal investigation found that 160 of Kestrel’s 399 graduates since 2008 didn’t meet the state’s requirements for a high school diploma.

Despite the school’s recent troubles, Tracy said it’s current wait list is only 50 or 60 students shy of what it has been historically.

“In light of our situation, our wait list has been little bit lower than it would be normally, but we’re only 50-something students, 60-something students off of where we are historically, so there’s no tremendous gap,” Tracy said.

He also assured parents that the school is on sound financial footing even if the SBE review panel upholds the larger board’s decision to close the high school.

While Kestrel leaders are hoping the review panel will allow the high school to remain open, Kestrel leaders are preparing for the worst.

Tracy said the school has been in touch with the Durham Public Schools to work on plans to make the transition from Kestrel to DPS smooth if such a move becomes necessary.

In response to a parent’s question about opportunities at other charters, Tracy said they have lotteries and cannot make exceptions for Kestrel’s students.

“The charter schools have a lottery process they can’t modify because of state law,” Tracy said.

Kestrel has agreed to stipulations set forth by the SBE that allows it to continue to operate its K-8 program, including appearing before state charter school officials every six months to deliver an update on the school’s progress.

School officials have also asked for a SBE review panel to take another look at the board’s decision in the hope that it might be overturned.

Under the rules, the SBE chairman may approve a review panel, which may review Kestrel’s request with or without a formal hearing.

If the panel decides to conduct a formal hearing, it must be held within 30 days of receiving the request unless the SBE and the charter school agree to a different time frame.

Kestrel leaders said they are unsure of the time line for the review, but are busy preparing for it.

Boston said Kestrel developed alternative proposals to closing the high school but they weren’t accepted.

“We gave them alternative solutions, they decided not to take them,” Boston said.

Kestrel leaders also gave parents instructions for getting student transcripts who might need them to transfer to other schools and pledged to continue to work with former students to ensure they get the course or courses needed to validate their diplomas.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645