Bittersweet night for Kestrel Heights' final graduation class

DURHAM, North Carolina (WTVD) -- It had all the excitement and joy of any high school graduation. But this commencement ceremony was also a funeral of sorts - a final sendoff for Kestrel Heights Charter School.

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Chris Akers, with his 4.5 GPA, stood as the last valedictorian.

"I don't know exactly what I should be feeling, because I feel there's so many things combatting inside me," Akers said afterward.

It's been a tumultuous year for the Durham charter. In April, the State Board of Education denied Kestrel Heights' last ditch effort to stay open.

That final ruling followed a lengthy investigation that found 160 of the high school's 399 graduates since 2008 were awarded diplomas despite their failure to meet the state's graduation requirements.

At the commencement ceremony inside NC Central's McClendon-McDougald Gymnasium, the closure was the elephant in the room - and Kestrel's principal took it head on.

"It would've been easy to give up, be defeated, transfer out and walk away," Principal April Goff said. "But you persevered, you held your heads high. You showed us all what it meant to be a Hawk."

Vanessa Williams' daughter, Kiera, was among the graduates.

"(The diploma problems) did happen, so life goes on," Williams said. "But I'm glad my daughter was the last of the graduating class."

The school's 300 or more underclassman are left to feel the impact of the closing forced to find new students within the Durham Public School System.

At the graduation, it was a ceremony designed to signify new beginnings. And while the Kestrel Heights Class of 2017 seemed happy to talk about their futures, they were forced to talk about their alma mater in the past tense.

"I worked hard for (this diploma), definitely. I struggled for it. I worked hard for it," said graduate Shontal Ervin.

Akers, the final valedictorian, echoed that pride.

"I'll keep (this diploma) hanging on my wall for the rest of my life. Yes, I am (proud to be an alumnus of this school)," Akers said.

Though Friday night was the end of the road for its high school, Kestrel was allowed to keep its charter for its K-8 school. The state's Charter Advisory Board wants to see a thorough audit for that by the end of October.
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