Catamount School will move to WCU campus

The Catamount School will move from Smoky Mountain High School to WCU this fall. File photo The Catamount School will move from Smoky Mountain High School to WCU this fall. File photo

The Catamount School, a laboratory school operating on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School, will relocate to the campus of Western Carolina University next school year after Jackson County Public Schools approved a relocation plan due to the need for more space at Smoky Mountain High School. 

“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 Kim Winter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions.


The Catamount School is a laboratory school operating on the campus of Smoky Mountain High School.

In 2016, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law 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 then selected universities to utilize their colleges of education to establish and operate these lab schools. The Catamount School in Jackson County is run by Western Carolina University’s College of Education. The lab school opened in 2017. Although it operates on the campus of SMHS, it is an entirely separate school system from JCPS. Students must apply and be accepted into the school.

During the school board’s March 19 meeting, Superintendent Dana Ayers gave a report on the Catamount School, the need for space at SMHS and the possibilities of relocating the lab school to another JCPS building.

In February, the board of education received information from a facilities study detailing the dire need for classroom space within several of its buildings.

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Relocation plan

After that March 19 report, JCPS administration met with Kim Winter, dean of WCU’s College of Education and Allied Professions, WCU Provost Richard Starnes and a WCU attorney. During that meeting JCPS administration shared its proposed plan for the Catamount School to relocate to the campus of Jackson Community School.

Jackson Community School is the old Scotts Creek School and used to house nearly 400 students. Today, there are 59 students that attend Jackson Community School in the building.

“So, there is more than adequate space there,” Ayers said.

The relocation plan involved allocating four classrooms to the Catamount School, the same number it currently occupies at SMHS, and two office spaces. The plan allowed for gym space in the morning when that area was not being used and continued work with JCS Principal Heather Reidinger to accommodate additional office and gym space if possible.

“They also would have access to outdoor space, which they don’t have a tremendous amount of currently at SMHS,” said Ayers.

Transportation was already handled as students who attend Jackson Community School ride the bus to SMHS and then get on a shuttle that takes students to and from JCS. School nutrition was also built into the plan as lunches provided to JCS are transported from Scotts Creek school each day and Catamount School students could be factored into that process.

During that April 12 meeting, JCPS also brought up improvements they would like to see at the Catamount School. One of those being the application process for the lab school which school board members had concerns about and discussed at their March 19 board meeting.

According to the legislation that created lab schools, students are eligible for admission to a lab school if a student resides in the local school administrative unit where the lab school is located and meets at least one of the following criteria — they are assigned to a low-performing schools, the student did not meet expected growth in the prior school year based on one or more indicators, the student is a sibling of a child who is eligible under the first two criteria or the student is the child of a lab school employee.

“When you look at those requirements, we have many JCPS students who would be eligible for that,” said Ayers.

However, the legislation also states that if a lab school has not reached enrollment capacity in a program, class, grade level or building by March 1, prior to the start of the next school year the lab school can enroll children who reside in the local school administration unit that do not meet the other criteria.

“One of the things I wanted you to see is that they have the opportunity to fill the school with students who meet that criteria and if they don’t fill it before March 1, they can take other students who don’t meet those criteria,” Ayers told the board in March.

The Catamount School does not open its application process until March 1, thus allowing the school to accept students without adhering to the criteria set out in the legislation.

“We talked about revising the procedures for enrollment applications prior to March 1 to meet the criteria set forth by legislation,” said Ayers.

JCPS administration said it would also like to see students from Jackson Community School allowed to apply to the Catamount School. Currently they are not listed on the application as eligible.

Last, JCPS and WCU administration discussed collaborating on professional development, having regular meetings between the two administrations and developing strategies that will assist JCPS in filling future EC positions.

“We all know and have heard over the last five years how difficult it is to fill EC positions, so we would like to move forward figuring out how we can address those EC vacancies we have,” said Ayers.

Ayers presented the relocation plan to the board for action in order to be able to move forward with the relocation process while awaiting a memorandum of agreement, which would come before the board separately in the future.

“What I seek is your approval to continue having these conversations and move forward when we get to that point and then when … there’s an MOA that needs to come it will come at the May 28 board meeting,” said Ayers.

Board discussion

Board members Lynn Dillard and Abigail Clayton both voiced their discontent with the plan, eventually voting against the motion to approve it. They did so not necessarily on the merits of the plan itself but because they wanted to have more communication with WCU and the Catamount School before approving any relocation plan.

“I would not be willing to enter an MOA until everybody is involved, sitting at the table in advance,” said Dillard. “Because what’s in the MOA is, what we’re obligating ourselves to and what we obligated ourselves to last time is exactly what we’re trying to get out of. And to me that’s a matter of trust between us and the university which has been broken down and I would never, ever want to move them unless they were 100% involved in that and ok with it.”

Dillard also voiced concern that the plan involved moving the Catamount school to Jackson Community School, because it is an alternative school, which she said has a negative connotation.

“These kids think that they’re going to a school for bad kids, that’s destructive in and of itself,” said Dillard.

Ayers opposed that perception saying that the students who attend Jackson Community School are not bad children.

“They are great children,” said Ayers.

Chairman Elizabeth Cooper and board members Wes Jamison and Kim Moore voted to approve the plan based on needed classroom space at SMHS to permit for in-person college and career readiness courses offered through Southwestern Community College.

“We have to take into consideration what’s best for all the kids,” said Jamison. “When you’re presenting us with an opportunity to offer certain classes at the high school that will also benefit Catamount School kids when they get to the high school, I don’t think you can discount that.” 

Moore also noted that the plan to move the Catamount School is not intended to be an indictment of any sort on the Catamount School.

“This is nothing personal,” said Moore. “We have to make the right decision — what is best for the kids? What’s best going forward for all of them?”

“I see great things with the Catamount School,” said Cooper. “But I also see that we have the opportunity with Southwestern courses that could tremendously benefit our high school students.”

The board voted 3-2 to approve the JCPS to work with the Catamount School to move forward with a relocation plan; Clayton and Dillard were the dissenting votes.

Current outcome

Despite the approval of the relocation plan by the board of education, in a May 6 press release, WCU said the lab school was “forced out of Jackson County Public Schools,” and that it would relocate to WCU’s campus in the coming year.

“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,” the release read.

“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 is quoted as saying. “This led to unfortunate inaccuracies being shared in a public setting with no opportunity for a collaborative discussion.” 

During the April 23 board meeting, Ayers said that the reason the discussion about relocation did not happen until the past couple of months is because that is when Southwestern Community College and JCPS were able to finalize plans for college and career readiness courses. Administration brought the discussion to its own board of education prior to bringing it up to the Catamount School or WCU administration.

Similar to the way charter schools operate, when a student opts to go to the Catamount School instead of Jackson County Public Schools, the money allotted to them by the state follows them. Jackson County Public Schools must pay the Catamount School for every student that chooses to attend.

However, while a typical charter school would get the entire per-pupil allotment from the public school system in which it operates, Jackson County Schools retains 30% of the allotment for students attending the Catamount School because JCPS is required by law to provide transportation and student nutrition for the school. That money also offsets costs associated with existing inside SMHS like janitorial services, phones, network access and more.

No plans have been finalized yet, but it is likely that JCPS will still need to provide transportation and nutrition services even with the Catamount School located on WCU’s campus.

In its May 6 press release, WCU noted that space was offered at the Jackson Community School but that it was ultimately decided 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.”

WCU has created a new memorandum of agreement for the Catamount School which currently is under review. It will likely be presented to the school board at its May meeting.

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