UNC President Spellings, system officials visit WCU, tour Catamount School

Sam Miller, vice chancellor for student affairs at WCU (center, gesturing), describes recent changes in the center of campus to UNC President Margaret Spellings (to Miller’s left), members of the UNC Board of Governors and other university system officials.

University of North Carolina system President Margaret Spellings joined recently appointed members of the UNC Board of Governors for a visit to Western Carolina University and its newly opened Catamount School on Thursday, Sept. 21, as part of a tour to help new board members get to know all of the system’s institutions.

The group, which included members of Spellings’ staff, met with Chancellor David O. Belcher and other university officials for an overview of challenges and opportunities facing WCU during a time of rapid enrollment growth and with the coming of the NC Promise tuition plan next fall. Total enrollment eclipsed the 11,000-student mark this fall, and NC Promise will lower in-state tuition to $500 per semester beginning next fall at WCU and two other UNC institutions.

The afternoon visit culminated in a trip to the Catamount School, a collaborative effort of WCU and Jackson County Public Schools and located on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School. A laboratory school for up to 75 students in grades six through eight, the school is the result of a mandate included in last year’s state budget legislation calling for the establishment of lab schools at eight institutions of the UNC system.

Although the legislation directed the system to open four lab schools this fall (and four in fall 2018), only two institutions were able to get schools up and running in time for the opening of the 2017 academic year – WCU and East Carolina University.

WCU Chancellor David Belcher (left) and UNC President Margaret Spellings (right) chat during a visit to the recently opened Catamount School.

After touring the facility and chatting with students and teachers, Spellings called the Catamount School a symbol of the spirit of WCU. “You all are people that say yes, you take risks and you serve. And you do scholarship and do research. This is a laboratory school for the students, yes, but also for the practice (of teaching) generally and for all that we’re going to learn about learning,” she said.

The innovative laboratory school is designed to help students successfully transition into high school through implementation of a “whole school, whole community, whole child” approach. The school’s principal, Bob Dinsdale, and its teachers are employees of WCU, while the public school system provides transportation and lunch for students. The school has four content teachers who provide instruction in English language arts, math, science and social studies, as well as an exceptional children coordinator/intervention specialist, one exceptional children administrator and a school data manager.

Kim Winter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, and Kim Elliott, interim superintendent of Jackson County Public Schools, shared information about the school and its mission with Spellings and the Board of Governors members. System officials spoke with several Catamount School students and learned from its teachers and administrators about the effort it took to get the school off the ground in less than a year.

“The best testimonial is, of course, the students themselves,” Spellings said after enjoying refreshments with the children, who showed her how to sit on a specially designed “wobble chair” that allows students to release excess energy without distracting others while they study. “I mean, wow, they are loving it and they are engaged. They are 20 days in and could not possibly want to be anywhere more than they want to be here. I can’t say how good that feels to everybody.”

Spellings said the Catamount School is breaking new ground and paving the way for the other lab schools to be developed in the year ahead. “We’re going to learn from you. We’re going to learn so many things,” she said. “This is really just such an amazing place. I can’t wait to see the things you are going to do. You’re going to change our state. You’re changing the lives of these students that you are working with, who sought a different option for their own reasons.”

In addition to the Catamount School, stops along the tour included a visit to WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building to learn more about the university’s health care clinics and its partnerships with regional care providers; a walk-by look at the campus’ center core (including the new Noble and Brown halls); a peek at site work for the university’s new science building; and a journey through WCU’s aging steam plant.

The afternoon began with a lunch in the John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center and a mini-performance by students in WCU’s Musical Theatre Program.