Jackson County’s new lab school, the Catamount School, preps for opening Aug. 22

The Catamount School held orientation for students and parents on Aug. 15. The collaborative effort of WCU and the local public school system opens Tuesday, Aug. 22.

The Catamount School, a collaborative effort of Western Carolina University and Jackson County Public Schools, held an orientation for students and parents Tuesday, Aug. 15, in anticipation of opening Tuesday, Aug. 22.

The new, innovative laboratory school is designed to help enrolled students in sixth through eighth grades transition into high school through implementation of a “whole school, whole community, whole child” approach. The school’s principal and its teachers are employees of WCU, while the public school system provides transportation and lunch for students.

Located on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School, the school can serve up to 25 students in each of the eligible grade levels. All Jackson County students in those grades are eligible to enroll in the Catamount School. Enrollment prior to opening was more than 50 students.

“This is fun, and I’m with friends,” said Fin Wargo, a sixth-grader who was busy trying out his new combination lock during student orientation. “Plus, I’m going into ‘high school’ before my sister, even though she’s in the eighth grade.”

Sixth-grader Fin Wargo chooses a locker after receiving a combination lock.

Catamount School lockers are painted purple, distinguishable from the nearby blue lockers of Smoky Mountain High School. Orientation for parents included individually meeting teachers, information sessions and focus groups. “Paws,” the WCU athletics mascot, made the rounds for greetings and posed for photos.

“Parents are very involved in many aspects and facets” of the school, said Julie Johnson-Busbin, mother of an eighth-grader, before leading a roundtable discussion with fellow parents. “We want to build community, encourage engagement, share ideas and help create a unique educational experience for our children. The great thing I’ve witnessed is how much the administration has done to encourage input from students and parents. We are all involved in this educational process.”

Robert Dinsdale, a former assistant principal at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva and at Asheville High School, has been appointed principal of the Catamount School. During orientation he went from classroom to classroom, attending to details. He said everyone was not only prepared but eager for school to open.

WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar shared a university message of building a partnership and anticipation of success for the initiative. “We are absolutely delighted you have entrusted your kids to us,” she told a group of parents. “We have fabulous people here to support your children and you, and this is the start of something innovative and wonderful and exciting ― the excitement is palpable when you walk into the building. I look forward to interacting with all of you.”

Visiting classrooms, Morrison-Shetlar welcomed students and reminded them they are all Catamounts now, and to share the scholastic pride by saying “Go Cats!,” which students enthusiastically did.

“You’re all Catamounts now,” WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar says to students.

The school has four content teachers providing 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. The school also features a contracted school nurse and an arts and enrichment coordinator.

“The Catamount School faculty is really excited about the coming year,” said Holly Henderson Pinter, an assistant professor at WCU and math teacher at the Catamount School. “We are entering this year as a blank slate in many ways. Our hopes and dreams for the year are to be heavily directed by our students as we get to know them, responding to both their academic needs and also their own interests.

“We have already begun to work with WCU faculty and the parents of Catamount School students to build the family-like community we are seeking. We’ve had a picnic to get to know each other and several parent focus groups have met to develop some goals for the year,” she said.

“As a faculty member in the middle grades department as well as a full time Catamount School teacher, my personal goals are to offer both sets of my students, both middle school and undergraduates, really genuine opportunities to learn and to grow,” Pinter said. “My methods students will be working on-site with our middle school students, and we are looking forward to building opportunities for the undergraduate students to apply the skills they’ve learned in course work directly to students in meaningful ways. To us, the possibilities are truly endless.”

WCU was one of eight University of North Carolina system institutions identified to establish and operate lab schools serving students in kindergarten through eighth grade. 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.

Holly Pinter (left) and Paws lead students on a campus tour.

The lab schools 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. Funding is 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. WCU is one of two UNC universities opening a lab school this academic year.

“At the Catamount School, we are committed to the creation of problem-centered, flexible learning environments, which help students develop critical reasoning abilities and promote a deeper understanding of the subject material,” said Kim K. Winter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions. “Our teachers will personalize instruction through use of evidence-based practices, which will guide students in processing what they are learning through discussion and reflection.

“The Catamount School will provide opportunities for digital learning and innovative classroom designs; therefore, students have their own devices and our classrooms include a range of options, including high and low tables, moveable Promethean boards, wobble stools, and tables and walls which work as brainstorming palettes for writing, drawing and sharing work.”

“The Catamount School is a unique example of partnership and true innovation,” Winter said. “We have collaborated with Jackson County Public Schools closely over the past year as we planned for the opening of our school. Many individuals have been involved during this time ― teachers and administrators from Jackson County, as well as faculty and staff at WCU. We are grateful for the efforts of a variety of units on campus, from Facilities Management to Administration and Finance. The enormity of the task of opening a school cannot easily be described. WCU is committed to this school and our students, and we look forward to the hard work and continued meaningful engagement.”

For more information, contact the dean’s office in the College of Education and Allied Professions at 828-227-7311.