Western Carolina University and Jackson County Public Schools are collaborating on the formation of a lab school designed to help students in grades six through eight successfully transition into high school through implementation of a “whole school, whole community, whole child” approach. Christened “the Catamount School” and located on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School, the school will have the capacity to serve 25 students in each of the eligible grade levels (six through eight). It is scheduled to be in operation when the 2017-18 school year begins.

WCU is one of eight University of North Carolina system institutions identified as candidates to establish and operate laboratory schools serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade, as required by a provision in the 2016-17 state budget enacted last July. Under the legislation, the lab schools must be located in public school districts where at least 25 percent of schools have been classified as low-performing, based on student achievement data. They will operate as public schools of choice, with a mission to improve student performance in eligible school districts and provide exposure and training for teachers and principals to successfully address challenges existing in high-needs school settings.

Jackson County school officials have worked side-by-side with university personnel in solidifying the details for the Catamount School, said former superintendent Michael Murray MAEd ’88 EdS ’05 EdD ’08, now leading Cherokee Central Schools. “Jackson County Public Schools are excited for this unique opportunity to build on our collaborative educational partnership with Western Carolina University and form an innovative new choice for our middle-level students,” Murray said. “This program will be an excellent example of combining the strengths of both organizations proactively to focus on the whole child during the developmental stage when our children need it the most.”

Under the legislation mandating the formation of lab schools, the school’s principal and teachers will be employees of WCU. The university’s Board of Trustees will be the governing body for the school, with responsibility for its operation and outcomes. The board approved Robert Dinsdale MSA ’08, former Smoky Mountain assistant principal, as Catamount School director.