WCU, Jackson County Schools announce formation of ‘the Catamount School’

Jackson County's Smoky Mountain High School will also be the site of "the Catamount School."

Jackson County’s Smoky Mountain High School will also be the site of “the Catamount School.”

Western Carolina University and the Jackson County Public School system will collaborate 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.

To be 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 new school year begins in August 2017.

The Catamount School will provide a learning community in which all students are valued and that promotes health and wellness and a commitment to learning through experience in a caring, collaborative and inclusive environment, said Dale Carpenter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions.

Announcement of plans for the school came Tuesday, Jan. 24, during a meeting of the Jackson County School Board.

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.

The UNC system includes 15 institutions that offer educator-preparation programs. After initial consultations, the list narrowed to eight. In addition to WCU, the other institutions included on the list of potential lab school sites are Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, North Carolina Central University, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, University of North Carolina at Pembroke and University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

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.

Students attending Catamount School will benefit from the combining of the expertise and resources of Jackson County Public Schools and WCU to provide best practices and to offer students additional attention and support to succeed, Carpenter said.

“The legislation requires an advisory committee composed of a variety of community stakeholders to help guide the school and we plan to engage with them frequently,” he said. “In addition, WCU students who are preparing to be teachers, school administrators and other school professionals will be involved. Parents of Catamount School students can expect a full-court effort aimed at success.”

School systems in Jackson County and McDowell County are the two districts in the WCU service area that met the state criteria for establishment of a lab school. WCU selected Jackson County as its partner in this endeavor because of the school system’s close proximity to the university and a long and positive history of collaboration, Carpenter said.

Jackson County School officials have worked side-by-side with university personnel in solidifying the details for the Catamount School, said Michael Murray, system superintendent.

“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.”

All Jackson County students in grades six, seven and eight will be eligible to enroll in the Catamount School.

Under the provisions of the legislation mandating the formation of lab schools, the school’s principal and its 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 school system will provide transportation and lunch for students in the school. University and school system officials are working on a memorandum of understanding that will specify other responsibilities regarding operational issues.

Funding for the Catamount School will be based on the average per-pupil allotment for average daily membership, to be transferred from the school system to WCU for each child attending the school.