On a recent spring morning, kids at the Catamount School in Sylva kick soccer balls into multiple goals on a field outside their school. The day has just begun at the school, which is nestled in the mountains of Jackson County in western North Carolina.
“You missed!” one boy yells at another, before doubling over into a frenzy of laughter.
The fifty or so students at the middle school start every day with some variation on this hormone-filled, somewhat chaotic activity. It could be soccer, or a cross between badminton and baseball, depending on which elective they selected.
Nicole Kaysing, the middle school’s physical education teacher, says there’s a lot of research behind how physical activity awakens kids’ brains and helps them learn better.
“They come in and they run around,” Kaysing said. “So some of them that don’t come in with energy, they create that energy. And some that come in with too much energy, it helps them kind of mellow out and get ready to learn for the rest of the day.”
Starting the day with PE is just one of many things The Catamount School does differently. That’s its point, as a laboratory school run by Western Carolina University.
“You saw the classrooms with the wobble stools,” said Principal Bob Dinsdale, referring to a type of chair that lets kids fidget while they learn. “And I’m not sure if you noticed, but some of those tables are dry erase tables that they can write on.”
Laboratories For Learning
Western Carolina and eight other public universities across North Carolina are opening K-12 public schools to serve kids with academic challenges, like low scores on standardized tests. The state legislature directed the universities to do so in the hope that they will be laboratories for innovative teaching. Eligible students gain entry by applying, and aren’t charged tuition.
“We also do standards-based grading, which is a big change for parents,” Dinsdale said.
That means students at The Catamount School get rated on their mastery of skills, instead of receiving letter grades.
“It’s an opportunity for parents and everybody to figure out what a kids knows, rather than a generic A, B, or 93 in math,” Dinsdale said. “It gets down to the core of what they’re actually learning.”
The Catamount School was one of the first two laboratory schools to open last fall, and it already looks very different from a traditional public middle school. For one thing, it’s housed in a wing of Sylva’s high school.
But more central to its academic mission is the fact that kids hardly ever sit in rows of desks listening to lectures from teachers. This is despite the fact they have to take the same end-of-grade testing as traditional public school students, and will probably head to the same traditional public high school as their peers in other Jackson County middle schools.
“Basketball is life, the adrenaline with no strife,” sixth grade student Tucker reads aloud, while sitting at a dry erase table with a friend.
It’s about an hour or so after soccer, and he’s composing the metaphor poem for Ms. Poteet’s language arts class.
“It’s the most fun, it’s for everyone,” Tucker continues.
Meeting Kids Where They Are
Much of the learning at The Catamount School happens through creating and experiences.
“Those kids aren’t stressing about it,” said Tucker’s mom, who stopped in for a visit. “They’re just learning. And they’re doing their lessons in a way that are so fun, the kids want to learn, and I think that has made a big difference.”
At the other end of the state in Greenville, ECU’s laboratory school is also big on interactive learning. Around Valentine’s Day, for instance, teachers planned STEM activities that included building towers out of conversation hearts.
“I’m going to build mine to the roof,” said one second grader.
But an even bigger priority for the school has been meeting the kids’ basic needs. The elementary school is located in the middle of a subsidized housing community, where many students live.
“You just want to drill down, you just want to find out what it is that’s causing that challenge,” said Principal Tasha Rodriguez. “And it could be something that they faced at home, or whatever it is. But when we find that out -- focus on that, and help them with that. And then, motivate them to learn.”
That’s meant providing the kids with resources like coats in the wintertime, a mid-morning snack, and what Rodriguez calls the heart of the school: an integrated health center. There, a full-time nurse and health navigator connects families with services they may not otherwise get, and ECU pitches in.
“We have [ECU] students who come over from psychology, counseling, family-marriage therapy, school of dentistry,” Rodriguez said. “We have so many others that come in, it’s hard to keep up!”
The ECU lab school and the Catamount School are small by traditional public school standards; this past school year, each had less than 70 students. Still, Jackson County School Superintendent Kim Elliott thinks whatever works at the new schools can be used to help their surrounding districts.
“With not just best practices and curriculum and instruction,” she said. “But also, if we can show that the Catamount School has produced...academic results, for students, based on class size, then it will help us to advocate better for more teachers and smaller class size.”
Administrators are still waiting on those results. In the meantime, three other laboratory schools are preparing to open this fall.