PEMBROKE — Robeson County could have its third charter school by the 2019-20 school year.
Like the Innovative School District that will take over Southside Ashpole Elementary School in fall, this initiative is mandated by the North Carolina General Assembly.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and the Public Schools of Robeson County would partner in a laboratory school designed to help underperforming students and schools and to train teachers and principals to succeed in high-needs schools.
UNCP was selected along with eight other UNC schools to participate in the University of North Carolina Laboratory Schools.
Preliminary plans are coming together for UNCP to manage three grades in the K-8 spectrum within a school or all the students in a school. UNCP will hire teachers and a principal and create a charter school.
UNCP’s dean of the School of Education Alfred Bryant appeared at a school board meeting and at a committee meeting on Feb. 20.
“This is a partnership with the Public Schools of Robeson County,” Bryant said.
Schools Superintendent Shanita Wooten pledged full cooperation with UNCP; the local schools are already partner with UNCP in teacher training and other projects.
“We will enthusiastically approach this like any other partnership we have with the university,” Wooten said. “Dr. Bryant and I will work closely during the planning phase so the school will be ready to open at the start of the 2019-20 academic school year.”
Senate Bill 79 spells out the purpose for the laboratory schools, which is “to provide exposure and training for teachers and principals to successfully address challenges existing in high-needs school settings.”
As a charter school or school of choice, the lab school will accept applications for enrollment. However, the lab school will be in a low-performing school, and the students it enrolls will not be working at grade level, according to Sean Bulson, UNC’s interim vice president for university and school partnerships.
Bulson, with responsibility for all nine lab schools, and Bryant met with the school board. The details are being worked out, Bryant said.
“The purpose is to prepare teachers and principals to become leaders at high-needs schools and to improve student learning,” Bryant said. “It’s a good concept; I like the goal.”
Wooten also finds a lot to like in the lab school mission.
“UNCP students interested in teaching and school administration will receive hands-on experiences, training and exposure in one of our schools that has the most challenging needs,” Wooten said. “UNCP will continue to provide instruction on evidence-based practices in teaching and leadership to their students.
“We will provide the setting for the next generation of teachers and principals to learn and grow,” the superintendent said. “It is our hope they gain the skills needed to improve and turn around low performing schools in our region.”
Unlike the Innovative School District project, UNCP and the local school system have some history to build on.
East Carolina and Western Carolina universities started lab schools this school year, and UNCP will begin in the third wave of lab school implementation.
East Carolina started small with three classrooms in a Pitt County elementary school, and they plan to expand to grades kindergarten through fifth next year, Bulson said. Western Carolina enrolled approximately 50 students in grades sixth to eighth in a Jackson County middle school.
“The feedback we’ve received so far has been very good,” Bulson said. “The models are all different.”
UNC Wilmington will operate in a year-round middle school, he said. Appalachian State University will operate a school in Forsyth County, some distance from its campus. UNC Greensboro will take on an entire elementary school.
“The law mandates the universities operate a school in a county with 25 percent or more low-performing schools,” Bulson said. “In Appalachian’s case, their closest school districts did not meet that criteria.”
UNCP was picked because of its history and enrollment in teacher and principal education programs.
“There is already a great partnership existing between UNCP and its local schools,” Bulson said. “We have to operate as partners for the lab schools to succeed. This is not a takeover.”
The lab school project was not an initiative of UNC or the public schools, but of the legislature. The lab school bill initially died in committee but reappeared in the final budget, “without a lot of warning,” Bulson said.
Bulson, who is the former superintendent of Wilson County Schools, was brought in to manage the program. He is unequivocal in saying it will be a lot of work for the universities, but he sees “long-term benefits” all around.
Students enrolled in the lab schools should be among the primary beneficiaries, Bulson said.
“We have different eligibility requirements for students to enroll,” he said. “We’re looking for students who are not meeting their educational growth requirements — in other words, they’ve struggled. That’s what makes this program different.”
Bulson sees fewer negatives in Robeson County for the new lab school than in other rural school districts.
“Many rural schools are losing enrollment, but not Robeson County, where some schools are over enrolled,” he said. “We may be able to relieve an overcrowded school.”
There is no end date, although the bill requires an exit strategy.
There is no funding provided for costs incurred by UNCP or the Public Schools of Robeson County. Funding will have to be worked out, according to Wooten.
“The LAB school funding is based on the average per-pupil allotment for average daily membership, to be transferred from the Public Schools of Robeson County to UNCP for each child attending the school,” she said. “The school’s principal and its teachers will be employees of UNCP, while the public school system will continue to provide certain services such as transportation and lunch for students.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]