University faces challenges and opportunities with lab school

By: Kari Travis - Carolina Journal

GREENSBORO — UNC Greensboro will take over a low-performing Rockingham County elementary school this year, a chance for student teachers and administrators to lend a hand to struggling children and families.

There’s just one problem. UNC-G isn’t in the habit of operating a school educating pre-teens — and organizers are scrambling to meet a tight deadline.

In August, UNC-G will open a laboratory school — a public school operated and supervised by the university. The program, slated to run at Moss Street Elementary, will allow student teachers to hone their classroom skills under professional supervision. It will also provide medical care for students, a real benefit for the rural Reidsville community, said Christina O’Connor, UNC-G’s director of professional education.

A 2016 law passed by the N.C. General Assembly mandated “lab schools” on eight of UNC’s 16 campuses. Legislators tweaked the law last year, adding a ninth school to the roster. All lab schools must serve public school students between kindergarten and eighth grade.

Every lab school is different, but all are designed to help low-performing students rise to their potential. Each university has the freedom to decide on a school format.

Moss Street Elementary presents an amazing opportunity, but the road to opening day has some speed bumps, O’Connor said. The university must manage a public school budget, hire a principal and teaching staff, purchase furniture and textbooks, market the school, and much more.

“That is the challenge. It’s not something that UNC-G has done before. We have to figure out a lot of stuff.”

Moss Street is not a “laboratory,” O’Connor said. It is a partnership between UNC-G and the Reidsville community.

“Some people associate laboratories with experiments and lab rats. So we’re not experimenting on kids. We are educating kids. ‘Partnership school’ is a better term for us. It emphasizes what we’re doing, because we’re working together for the benefit of the kids.”

Community input is essential, O’Connor said. UNC-G is convening a council of local leaders and parents to advise about the needs of students and families.

“We want it to be a school that serves the needs of the community, and we can’t do that without engaging them in the process,” she said.

East Carolina University and Western Carolina University opened lab schools in 2017. Three more will launch in 2018. The final four are slated to open doors next year.

UNC-G’s school is a K-5 institution. The university has strong ties to Rockingham County, so Moss Street Elementary was an easy choice, said Randy Penfield, dean of the School of Education.

Organizing the school is an uphill challenge, O’Connor said. UNC-G has worked well with the Rockingham Board of Education, but bureaucracy always makes things difficult, O’Connor said.

“We’ve got two different kinds of institutions working together. You’ve got a school district who does things one way, and we do things another way.”

Money is another concern, O’Connor said. The annual school operating budget is $3.5 million. Legislators didn’t write additional funding into the law, so the school district and university must combine resources. UNC-G may apply for grants to help foot the bill.

Moss Street serves 420 students, by far the largest UNC lab school to open so far. UNC-G will use the program to train between 50 and 60 student teachers and interns.

The university is on the fast track to finish preparations, said Carl Lashley, an education professor. Lashley and O’Connor have worked on the project since last June. Fourteen months from inception to opening hasn’t left a lot of time for UNC-G to market the school, Lashley said.

“Most families move into a neighborhood and they know where their kid is going to school,” Lashley said. “Then, along comes the university who says, ‘Next year at Moss Street we’re going to do this laboratory partnership thing, and you have to choose to send your child there.’”

“Show, don’t tell,” is the best advertising method, said, O’Connor, who markets the lab school at academic events around Reidsville.

The challenges are many, but the product is well worth the effort, Lashley said. Moss Street Elementary is a chance for UNC-G to connect with families, and to help up-and-coming teachers build meaningful relationships.

“This is about the kids at Moss Street school. We want to improve student performance and opportunity. Together, the district and the university — as partners — can make really great things happen for the kids who are there. And that’s the whole point. That’s our pitch to the community.”

Kari Travis

Carolina Journal