WINSTON-SALEM — Appalachian State University is in its fourth week of school at a state-mandated laboratory school it launched in Winston-Salem this year.
The Academy at Middle Fork is a public school and partnership between the Reich College of Education at ASU and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools that serves kindergarten through fifth grades.
The N.C. General Assembly passed a law in 2016 requiring the UNC Board of Governors to establish eight lab schools aimed at improving student performance in low-performing schools, according to the University of North Carolina system.
Middle Fork is joined by four other laboratory schools in the state that are currently operating — Catamount School in Jackson County (Western Carolina University), ECU Community School in Pitt County (East Carolina University), Moss Street Partnership School in Reidsville (UNC Greensboro) and the DC Virgo Preparatory Academy in Wilmington (UNC Wilmington).
Under the legislation, the lab schools must be located in public school districts where at least 25 percent of schools have been classified as low-performing, based on student achievement data, according to the UNC System.
The lab schools will operate for a minimum of five years under North Carolina House Bill 532; the mandate is executed by the UNC Board of Governors. In accordance with HB532, Appalachian’s Board of Trustees will oversee the lab school, including establishing an advisory board, the academic program for the school and standards of performance and conduct for the school, stated ASU spokesperson Megan Hayes.
According to the bill, the “mission of a laboratory school shall be to improve student performance ... by providing an enhanced education program for students residing in those units and to provide exposure and training for teachers and principals to successfully address challenges existing in high-needs school settings.”
The bill also states that these types of schools shall provide an opportunity for research, demonstration, student support and expansion of the teaching experience and evaluation regarding management, teaching and learning.
The legislation establishes provisions for state and local funds to support the lab schools.
“In general, funding is provided by the North Carolina State Board of Education on a per pupil basis with additional allocations for children with disabilities and children with limited English proficiency,” Hayes stated. “These funds may be used to cover costs for facilities, equipment and operations.”
Local school administrative units in which laboratory schools are located are mandated to continue to provide food services and transportation to students attending the lab school, according to Hayes.
The Academy at Middle Fork opened on Aug 27. ASU Chancellor Sheri Everts visited the school and delivered books to the children there three days after it opened.
Reich College of Education Dean Melba Spooner said that the university’s college of education began conversations with the Winston-Salem/Forsyth School District as a partnering district as early as the academic year of 2016-17. Those involved decided that Middle Fork Elementary was the prime location for ASU’s laboratory school.
The school operates with approximately 18 classroom teachers and around 300 students. Hayes said the enrollment goal for this year was 315 students, which will provide the optimal student-teacher ratio. However, enrollment numbers were still fluctuating as of Sept. 10.
Spooner said the university started the curriculum developing process by looking at the needs — both in terms of what the law mandates and the needs of the school district. A curriculum team was then put in place to develop the core commitments to the academy’s standards.
These commitments were created with the central focus of early literacy. These commitments include learning together, developing the whole child, boosting academics and amplifying sustainability, Spooner said.
“We began in our process by calling it ‘in-curriculum’ — it frames back to the words inclusive, integrated and interdisciplinary curriculum,” Spooner said.
To explain the idea of in-curriculum, Spooner provided the example that grades K- are participating in “shared writing” where students are engaging together to share their ideas and feelings around the events happening in the classrooms.
Spooner said that a lot of what the academy is doing is promoting highly engaged learning.
In the school’s math curriculum, students focus on hands-on exploration of math standards by working in small groups, thinking about and applying new math concepts to their work and working through new mathematical ideas. She said the school aims to have teachers and students focus their attention on maintaining a growth mindset.
She said this type of engaged learning encourages students to be enthusiastic about their work and demonstrates how it relates to what they’re doing and where students are.
“For example, ‘I may not know this math yet, but I’m going to get there as I practice with my classmates,’” Spooner said.
Teachers were starting to work together on the shared reading part of the curriculum and beginning reading assessments at all of the grade levels. Spooner said teachers were working to assess students’ reading levels using informal reading inventories that will provide data on student accuracy, rate and comprehension.
“This will help us provide some targeting support in small group guided reading groups so students are able to make daily progress in building work knowledge and developing the ability to fluently read and comprehend text,” Spooner said.
Not only does this provide an opportunity for student growth, but teacher growth as well. Spooner said the laboratory setting allows educators and teacher ed students to work, teach, debrief and think about all of the pieces that are coming together to build the best practices across the teaching/learning processes.
For more information on Middle Fork, visit rcoe.appstate.edu/academy-middle-fork.