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College of Education and Allied Professions

The Catamount School plans to relocate to Reid

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WCU's lab school, the Catamount School, is moving from Jackson County's Smoky Mountain High School to the WCU campus beginning fall 2024.

By Julia Duvall

After a tumultuous couple of weeks, Western Carolina University has found a permanent space for The Catamount School. The lab school will be housed in Reid Building on the university’s campus this coming school year.

Just before the March 19 Jackson County Board of Education Meeting, Kim Winter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, which operates the Catamount School, found out the topic of the lab school space was on the agenda.

“We created the Catamount School in partnership with Jackson County Public Schools and I am disappointed that we were not included in important conversations and the sharing of information about our school,” Winter said. “This led to unfortunate inaccuracies being shared in a public setting with no opportunity for a collaborative discussion.”

The Catamount School opened its doors in August 2017. Although the lab school operates on the campus of SMHS, it is an entirely separate school system from JCPS.

In 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly enacted legislation that required the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to establish eight lab schools aimed at improving student performance in low-performing schools. The UNC System selected universities to utilize their colleges of education to establish and operate the lab schools.

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At the March and April board meetings, it was shared that JCPS felt the lab school was taking up too much room and utilizing resources that could go to other JCPS students, particularly those enrolled in Southwestern Community College dual-enrollment courses, that also use classroom space.

At the April 23 meeting, JCPS board member Abigail Clayton remarked that JCPS superintendent Dana Ayers informed the board via email that she had been trying to move the lab school out of SMHS for two years.

During this meeting, Ayers provided a year-long overview of her plans and conversations with SCC about the addition of classes. At no point during this timeline were any plans or possibilities communicated with WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown or Winter. Additionally, Ayers serves on the TCS advisory board and no mention was made to this group.

“It was reported in the media that the memorandum of agreement between WCU and JCPS was up for renewal this year, but the MOA and its amendments and restatements are not signed annually,” Winter said. “We updated the MOA for years 6-10 in 2021.”

JCPS is required by legislation to provide transportation and school nutrition services. Currently, JCPS also retains 30% of the allotment for students attending the lab school to account for costs associated with existing inside SMHS, janitorial services, phones, network access, and more.

“Three weeks after the March JCPS board meeting, we were invited to a meeting at the central office on Friday, April 12. This was the first time a relocation had ever been brought up to us,” said Winter. “In this meeting, JCPS inquired several times as to whether TCS could move to the WCU campus.

“It was our understanding that the SMHS schedule had been created and it certainly appears that there are other open classrooms and spaces,” Winter said. “We do not purport to offer something better than JCPS, but instead that we are an alternative choice. It is evident from our ongoing data walks and N.C. school performance measures that our students are making progress.”

Before the April 23 JCPS Board of Education meeting, Winter and school staff were made aware of the decision by the board that the lab school had until Aug. 1 to relocate.


Starting fall 2024, the Catamount School will be housed on WCU's campus in Reid Buildoing

While space at the Jackson Community School was offered for use by the Catamount School, it was ultimately decided that the needs of the lab school and its students would best be met in another location.

“It has been decided that the best relocation site is WCU’s campus as we can offer access to an array of resources. This has been a trying time for our school’s students, staff and parents but we are excited to relocate to WCU in the Reid Building and have a permanent space to call home,” Winter said. “We already have a comprehensive clubs and enrichment (electives) program but being on campus will allow new partnerships with faculty and students around campus. We also began offering athletics last year with great success, so our students will have ample opportunities.”

Winter is excited for the campus connections the Catamount School and WCU will form.

“This move will allow even more possibilities for Catamount School students as well as the ability for WCU students, faculty and staff to more easily make connections and enrich the academic experience,” said Winter.

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