The appropriations act that the state legislature passed in July required that the University of North Carolina system designate eight of its 17 institutions to start laboratory schools, the purpose of which would be to develop innovative ways of teaching and to aid education programs for teachers and administrators.
“Western has both of those — it has a teacher prep program and a school administration program,” said Dale Carpenter, dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions. “One of the criteria for where they would operate would be geographic diversity in the state, so we’re out here in the western part of the state and we have an excellent education prep program. I think we were an easy school to approach.”
Details not yet decided
The law says that the lab schools must teach students in any of the grades from kindergarten through eighth — though they don’t have to cover all those grades — and be located in counties where the state designates at least 25 percent of the public schools as low-performing. They’re to be governed by the university board of trustees with an advisory board appointed. Enrollment would be voluntary, with funding to come from the per-pupil funding that the state would otherwise pay to the school district the student attended before.
It’s a lot to plan for, and for WCU the timeline is likely to be a short one.
“Of the eight system schools there are going to be two waves,” Shea Browning, associate general counsel for WCU, told the Board of Trustees’ Academic Affairs and Personnel Committee at its December meeting. “One group is supposed to open up their school in 2017 and the other in 2018. We have been told informally that we’re in the first group.”
That’s not official, however, Carpenter said. Neither, at this point, is anything else aside from the fact that WCU will be starting a school in compliance with the legislation. The task includes everything from determining a location to devising a course of study to admitting students to hiring teachers and administrators. The responsibility for all of these functions would fall at the feet of the university’s Board of Trustees.
“We’re just talking about what it could possibly look like, what we think the biggest needs are and our biggest strengths,” Carpenter said.
A more detailed announcement is expected later this month.
The lab school could be a standalone facility, but it could also be a school within a school, making use of existing Jackson County Public Schools structures. It could serve just one grade level, or it could serve all nine. It could be staffed completely by licensed teachers, or it could use the leeway afforded in the legislation to hire only 50 percent licensed teachers.
The school doesn’t even have to be in Jackson County, necessarily. There are two counties in WCU’s service area that meet the 25 percent low performance threshold — Jackson and McDowell.
“Obviously if we were to do it, Jackson works best for us, so we’re talking with them but nothing has been decided,” Carpenter said.
Both WCU and Jackson Schools are speaking positively of the process thus far, with Carpenter calling the lab school concept a “win-win.”
Funding and timelines
However, that doesn’t mean there’s not any hesitation about the endeavor. On the WCU side, there’s question as to whether the funding will be sufficient to cover the mandate.
“Right now the model for paying for all this is a per-pupil model,” Browning told committee members. “The counties get a certain amount of funds for every student that goes to the school. Now we would get those funds, which is all well and good except that it doesn’t really pay for what the state wants to happen.”
While per-pupil funding makes up a significant chunk of the school system’s budget, it’s not all of it. The school system also gets local funding from the county, some federal dollars, and state money outside of the per-pupil amount.
If a student transfers from Jackson Schools to the WCU lab school, then Jackson Schools would no longer get the per-pupil funding it had previously received for that child. Of course, the school system would also no longer have to educate that child, but not all costs decrease in direct proportion to the student population. Buildings still need to be heated, grounds still need to be maintained, and a significant number of students would have to leave before staffing levels could change. This is a challenge that North Carolina public schools have been facing more and more in recent years, as increased diversity of public education offerings — like charter schools and online schools — splinter funding from the main public system.
Browning stressed to the trustees’ committee that maintaining the university’s relationship with Jackson Schools as lab school planning unfolds will be a priority.
“We have a great relationship with Jackson County, and no one wants that relationship hurt,” Browning said. “The law says we’re going to do certain things, but we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that relationship remains positive.”
The short planning timeline presents yet another challenge. The act containing the mandate was passed in July. After that, the UNC system had to decide which eight schools should host a lab school. And there hasn’t yet been a formal word on whether WCU will be required to open its school in August 2017 or in 2018.
“We are aware that it’s not a lot of time, and that’s why we are going full-steam ahead,” Carpenter said.
There are many decisions and logistics to be worked out before a school can open, but the short timeline also poses a challenge for recruitment. Because attendance at the lab school will be voluntary, its success will partially depend on community interest surging high enough to bring in students.
“It is going to be important that we have enough time to communicate with our community and generate enough interest to have enough numbers to sustain this project,” said Jackson Schools Superintendent Mike Murray.
Confidence in the outcome
Both WCU and Jackson Schools have expressed confidence that their collaboration will produce a final product that will ultimately benefit students and educators alike.
“We are excited about the possibilities of continuing our collaborative relationship with our Western Carolina University educational partners,” said Murray.
“With this process we will have an excellent product,” WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar told the trustee committee. “We are working hard to make sure this is meeting the needs of the students in our area.”
Currently, WCU has between 400 and 500 students who seek out field experiences in public schools throughout the western region. Carpenter said he still believes it’s important for education students to experience a diversity of school settings, but he sees opportunity in this chance to really invest in one particular school, allowing the faculty to be more engaged and for educational innovation to unfold. The lower teacher-to-student ratio at the lab school would also be a huge benefit, he said.
“We think it would really be a win-win for everybody,” Carpenter said. “A win for WCU, a win for Jackson County Schools, a win for the kids.”