“Catamount School” raises new questions and curiosity

Western Carolina University and Jackson County public schools are teaming up to bring a new and ambitious program to the public school system.

The new initiative, dubbed “Catamount School” by the North Carolina legislature, will start this August and is aimed at districts where schools are identified as low-performing.

Catamount School will serve students as a middle school – 6th through 8th grade, with three classrooms planned for each grade. A maximum of 25 students will be in each classroom with a maximum total of 75 students allowed.

“We have the chance to create something unique in North Carolina and using both our skills it provides a wonderful opportunity for our kids,” said Jackson County superintendent, Mike Murray. “We’re excited to get this up and running.”

The legislature states that WCU Board of Trustees must appoint all licensed and non-licensed staff, including a principal, faculty, teachers and non-licensed employees as needed. Eight schools are intended to open over the next two years, with four opening in August 2017 and another four starting in August 2018.

A look at a part of the passed legislature, detailing student admissions and assigned personnel. Photo courtesy of Dale Carpenter

Catamount School was aimed specifically at Jackson County because of the excellent record that WCU and Smoky Mountain High School have had in the past working together on lab schools and extracurricular programs.

“Jackson County and Western have had a good history with collaborations,” Murray explained. “The relationships between our buildings is what will make this work. We have good teachers, good principals and we know how to run schools.”

Despite the exciting and ambitious opportunity that Catamount School represents there are some concerns about the amount of time that has been given to Jackson County to put the initiative together.

“The legislation stated four schools would begin in August 2017 and we were picked because we have a history of getting things done,” said Dale Carpenter, Dean of College of Education and Allied Professions at WCU. “While more time to prepare would have been great we’re still expecting to be successful in the first year and build on that success in following years.”

The worries about the lack of time are not only felt by Dr. Carpenter.

Superintendent Murray, a Western Carolina alumni, is looking forward to working with WCU during Catamount School. Photo by Lauren Gray

“The main problem with our time frame is that we won’t have enough time to communicate to parents about what Catamount School is and what benefits it brings,” said Murray. “We have to work on the logistics of how to get kids from Blue Ridge School in Glenville to Smoky Mountain in Sylva and we have a lot of details to work out before we open.”

Another large concern for Catamount School revolves around the funding of the project.

“Even if we have 75 students, which is our first-year capacity, that won’t generate a lot of money,” said Carpenter. “Most schools, including private and charter schools, are constantly fundraising and often have more than one source of support.”

Catamount School will be held on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva. Photo by Austin McDowell

Superintendent Murray shares the concern along with Carpenter.

If we lose students we will lose funding. I don’t want this to hurt our school system and we are doing everything we can to save money. We’ve kept teachers and programs in place but as we move forward in the budget process I want to be clear I don’t want anything to be mandated.”

Regardless of the concerns, both men agree that this is an exciting chance for a new program to take flight.

“Moving and rotating teachers and principals into the program will allow us to try new things to see if they are successful,” Murray said at the end of his interview. “We have the chance to create something unique in NC, and using both our skills it provides a wonderful opportunity for our kids, and we’re excited to get this up and running.”

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