Orange County

UNC system forging ahead with K-8 lab-school project on two campuses

Margaret Spellings is shown after being elected president of the University of North Carolina system during a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill on Oct 23, 2015.
Margaret Spellings is shown after being elected president of the University of North Carolina system during a meeting of the UNC Board of Governors at the Spangler Center in Chapel Hill on Oct 23, 2015. ehyman@newsobserver.com

UNC’s legislatively-mandated lab-school experiment should yield the opening later this summer of two schools, one in Sylva and the other in Greenville, system administrators reported Thursday to a Board of Governors committee.

Western Carolina University and East Carolina University, respectively, will operate them. Western’s school will target grades 6, 7 and 8 and open in Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva. ECU’s will start with grades 2, 3 and 4 and be housed in South Greenville Elementary School, said Sean Bulson, system President Margaret Spellings’ senior adviser for lab schools.

A third university, Appalachian State, is working with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools on the project. It’s looking to open an elementary school but has yet to annouce where it’ll be, Bulson said.

Five other universities — N.C. Central University among them — are “still in discussions about partnerships” with low-performing school districts, he said, summarizing progress on an effort the N.C. General Assembly ordered the system to undertake last year, he said.

At the time, the assembly’s orders were that UNC and its campuses open four lab schools for the 2017-18 school year and four more for 2018-19.

But doubts surfaced quickly about whether that schedule could hold given the need for campuses to mobilize and secure cooperation for local school districts. A bill now pending in the General Assembly would change the deadlines to give it until 2019-20 to open at least nine lab schools.

Bulson said the system office now has an in-house team to help the campuses organize, and it’s working with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, which is responsible under state law for supervising and administering K-12 schools.

Both the Western Carolina and ECU lab schools will “have a strong focus on literacy,” and their leaders reckon they’ll need to supply non-academic help to “students who have a lot of needs” away from school. At ECU, that means officials are working to enlist assistance for the project from the institution’s medical school, said Bulson, former superintendent of the Wilcson County Schools.

The original legislation for the project instructed UNC to pick eight universities with teacher-training programs to open K-8 schools that would be organized, funded and governed much like charter schools. For now, each university’s campus trustees are supposed to do the job of a school board or board of directors in terms of suppling oversight. The pending bill that changes the schedule would change that too, assigning the supervision job to campus chancellors.

The idea is that universities can use the lab schools as testbeds, to improve their research and teacher training even as pupils and their families benefit from their state-of-the art grasp of the teaching profession.

Each participating campus was to pair up with a school district with lagging test scores. As they ponder the schedule and oversight issues, legislators are also considering the idea of letting up to three work with any district that has a low-performing school, a change that might make it easier for some campuses to find partners.

Aside from N.C. Central, the campuses in the project that have yet to identify a partner district are UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke and UNC-Wilmington. The system’s flagship campuses, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University, have been sitting this one out.

UNC-Wilmington’s chancellor, Zito Sartarelli, told board members last fall that his campus was working with the Columbus County Schools. But the coastal institution backtracked on that in January, officials telling Wilmington’s trustees the potential partnership was no longer in the works. Campus spokeswoman Janine Iamunno said recently that there’s “nothing new” to report about other options.

Another change in the pending bill, which cleared the N.C. House last month on a 114-0 vote, would order the Board of Governors to set up a special subcommittee to sign off on each campus project. That drew grumbling Thursday from some members of the board’s education-policy committee, who asked whether the idea for that came from the system staff.

“At some point it might have been incumbent on whoever to consult the chair of this committee or the chair of our board to see if they had a preference,” member Bill Webb said, who wondered why the education-policy committee “wasn’t sufficient to that purpose.”

System General Counsel Tom Shanahan responded that there’d been “a consultation with our board officers and the chairman” of the board, Asheville lawyer Lou Bissette, and that the system had talked of having a “board-appointed committee” take on the approval role. The idea of the BOG subcommittee is “what came out of the legislation” and talks with legislators, he said.

The board’s existing education-policy committee screens degree-program proposals from UNC’s 16 universities and other policy matters affecting their academic departments. It also helps regulate online degree programs offered in North Carolina by out-of-state universities.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg

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