Forums underway as WCU, educators explain lab school

The first of two forums about the new Catamount School unveiled plans, objectives and information.

The forum, which took place March 16 on the campus of Western Carolina University, was led by Kim Winter, associate dean of The College of Education at WCU; Dan Grube, director of The School of Teaching and Learning at WCU; and Bob Dinsdale, principal of Catamount School.

About 25 people attended the event.

Highlights of the forum included discussions about how a normal week at the school would look, information about food and transportation plans and how both WCU and Jackson County would benefit from Catamount School.

“We want Catamount School to have the idea of a ‘family school,’” Dinsdale said during the forum. “If a student needs extra educational or psychological support, then our students and staff will be able to work in small and flexible groups, which will allow chances for individual teaching and learning.”

Dinsdale also noted that Catamount School was not a charter school and that it would not be in competition with other schools in Jackson County. A future memorandum of understanding will come soon. It will outline additional responsibilities for Catamount School, he explained.

Catamount School classes are going to take place in the B Building on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School. It will serve as a middle school for 6th-8th graders. There will be a cap of 25 students per class, totaling 75 students the first year.

Bob Dinsdale, the first principal of Catamount School, was an assistant principal at SMHS for two years. Photo by Austin McDowell

Jackson County Schools system is responsible for covering transportation and providing food. While it has been specified that lunches will take place in the SMHS cafeteria, it is currently unknown how bus and car transportation will operate for Catamount School.

WCU will be responsible for supplying teachers and managing a flexible schedule, along with possibly assigning interns for different classes. Interns will be used to teach small groups, Dinsdale explained.

“We still haven’t gotten all our full-time teachers and students but we do have several people interested,” said Winter. “We are surprised at the number of volunteers who are willing to step forward for this program.”

According to Winter, the next step of the plan is to figure out the logistics of Catamount School. She said that at the moment it is “organized chaos.” However, the “complicated logistics,” have been covered and the College of Education is expecting numerous positive impacts for WCU and Jackson County, she said.

The application focus for Catamount School will be on students who live in Jackson County and are considered low-performing, using state metrics. Additionally, students that are currently attending Smoky Mountain and Blue Ridge School will be priority students. They will be selected first.

Kim Winter displays what a day at Catamount School may look like. Photo by Austin McDowell

Catamount School will handle school conduct differently from traditional disciplinary actions at other schools.

“We’re going to be working towards a more ‘community sense of justice,’” said Dinsdale. “Discipline will exist, but we aren’t going to isolate children. No silent lunches or extended detentions as a regular punishment. I don’t believe in that.”

Dinsdale says that if kids act out, staff members will try and discover why the kids acted as they did.

Funding for the state-mandated Catamount School will be provided by an average daily membership from local school administrative units. The school will operate for five years. It is unknown if the General Assembly will expand the school beyond the five-year plan.

Other universities selected by the legislature to open lab programs in August 2017 are Appalachian State University, East Carolina University and UNC Wilmington.

Those opening lab programs in August 2018 are UNC Pembroke, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro and North Carolina Central University.

Dinsdale said he was optimistic about the program opening.

“We have the opportunity to set the stage for future programs similar to Catamount School,” he said. “If we discover something isn’t working, we can switch our focus or strategy to make it work. We have a lot of people on this ensuring that this will be a great program.”

To access the full legislation, click here.