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Jackson County home to one of only 10 laboratory schools in NC

By Kristin Fox

Jackson County is home to one of 10 University of North Carolina System Laboratory Schools located in the state aimed to provide enhanced educational programming to students in low-performing schools and to plan demonstration sites for the preparation of future teachers and school administrators. 

Although there is a renewed focus on the need for a traditional middle school for Jackson County, the school system is actually already home to a middle school, The Catamount School (TCS), serving many 6th, 7th and 8th grade students in Jackson County. 

Founded through state legislation, TCS opened in 2017 as a laboratory middle school operated by Western Carolina University (WCU) in partnership with Jackson County Public Schools (JCPS). As a lab school for 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, TCS is designed to explore innovative teaching approaches and applied learning opportunities through experiential and problem-based learning to help every student discover their full potential.

TCS is located on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School (SMHS). Through a partnership between WCU and the JCPS, meals and transportation are provided by JCPS. All rising 6th, 7th and 8th grade students who reside in Jackson County are eligible to apply and attend The Catamount School.

The model of TCS is designed to reach students who are not meeting their full academic potential in a traditional classroom. While any 6, 7, 8th grade resident of Jackson County can apply, the legislation provides admissions preference to students currently attending a school defined by N.C.G.S. 115C-105.37 as a low-performing school or students are themselves low-performing (i.e., not meeting proficiency as measured by End-of-Grade tests).

Applications can be found on the school’s website, Enrollment begins March 1. Any interested families are encouraged to reach out for a tour or to meet the teachers. Families are also invited to follow the school on Instagram and Facebook to stay up to date on open house events.

All students in all grades take the following:

      • Daily: Math, English Language Arts, Social Studies, Science, and Health and PE.
      • Weekly grade-level advisory classes with our school counselor to address social-emotional learning, positive relationships, and other developmental skills.
      • CAT Time: Twice per week, all students take a targeted intervention course for Math and Reading which allows for enrichment, remediation, and additional, personalized learning opportunities based on individual student needs.
      • Elective Courses twice per week: students choose from the following: Theatre Arts, STEM, Outdoor Education, Visual Art, and Student Government.
      • Clubs: students choose from the following: Ukulele Club, Book Club, Dungeons & Dragons, Intramural Sports, and Yoga.

The teacher to student ratio is 1:10. By design, TCS has and will continue to have small class sizes. The lab middle school has no more than 75 students at a time, with five core teachers, two instructional support staff, and administration. Through the school’s work as a lab school, training preservice teachers, interns, professors, and education classes at WCU are on campus regularly (some daily) to support students by providing additional one-on-one and small group opportunities.

TCS students are not eligible for JCPS sports, but enjoy intramural sports and daily health and physical education, and many play in recreational or county leagues. In addition, these students participate with SMHS musical theatre productions and have often collaborated with the JCPS band and program to offer additional music opportunities.

In 2016, the N.C. General Assembly law passed requiring the UNC Board of Governors to establish eight lab schools aimed at improving student performance in low-performing schools. The legislation was modified in 2017 to require the creation of nine lab schools rather than eight. The system has 15 institutions that offer educator-preparation programs.

According to the legislation, the purpose of the lab schools is to “improve student performance in local school administrative units with low-performing schools by providing an enhanced education program for students residing in those units and to provide exposure and training for teachers and principals to successfully address challenges existing in high needs school settings.” N.C.G.S. 116-239.5(b).


The legislation governing the laboratory schools project focuses on three broad goals: 

(1) to improve the performance of students in local school administrative units with low-performing schools; 

(2) to provide exposure and training for teachers; and 

(3) to provide exposure and training for principals.

In addition to WCU, other states colleges operating lab schools include Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, North Carolina A & T State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNC Charlotte, UNC Greensboro, and UNC Wilmington.

Two primary factors were considered in determining which institutions would participate in the initiative: geography and the capacity of the institutions’ schools of education and educator preparation programs. In considering the capacity of the educator preparation programs, the UNC System considered the number of undergraduate teacher candidates, the size of the education school faculty, and the amount of research money available to the schools.

All UNC System Lab Schools are committed to do the following:

  • Deliver high expectations to prepare students for college and life
  • Ensure students learn to read and communicate effectively
  • Address the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students
  • Harness the benefits of partnerships to strengthen learning, teaching, and school leadership

The establishment of the UNC System Laboratory Schools provides the opportunity to redefine and strengthen university partnerships with public schools, improve student outcomes, and provide high quality teacher and principal training. The UNC System Office selects universities that will utilize their Colleges of Education to establish and operate lab schools. The lab schools will then partner directly with local school districts to promote evidence-based teaching and school leadership, while offering real-world experience to the next generation of teachers and principals. 

UNC System Lab Schools will serve every part of the UNC System mission — teaching, research, and public service.

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