Poet Adrian Rice, in a thick Irish brogue, paints a scene in the imaginations of the third-graders who sit before him in Walkertown.  

“A blackbird lands in lush, green blades /Flirting its tail up and out/Like a satin fan waved/In the high summer heat/ With the cock of the head/ From side to side / Its bill cuts a silent, yellow arc,” Rice quotes from an original poem.  

A small group of 8- and 9-year-olds are spellbound, their notebooks open, pages scrawled across their desks. Several children shove their hands into the air to ask questions or make comments before clutching pencils to scratch out new poems — verses that say a great deal about their lives, their struggles, and their school.  

“Can you write nine lines today?” Appalachian State University professor Beth Frye asks.

“Yes!” A soundwave of young voices breaks across the classroom. 

The elementary school class is a departure for the kids, who come from low-income and minority backgrounds. The class on this Friday in May is a special poetry seminar taught by Frye, an expert in reading and special education, and Rice, a published poet and doctoral candidate at ASU.  

This is how things work at Appalachian State University’s Academy at Middle Fork, an elementary “laboratory school” designed to help low-performing students achieve academic proficiency before sixth grade.  

It’s an experiment, a K-5 project to discover new and better ways of teaching. Of learning.

Lab schools 

Laboratory schools are a developing phenomenon across the UNC system. In 2016, the General Assembly passed a law establishing eight such schools. It’s aimed at UNC institutions with strong teacher-training programs, and it targets public schools with the lowest performance scores. UNC will partner with local school districts to manage and run the K-8 schools, the statute says.

The Academy at Middle Fork is one of five now open across UNC’s 17-campus system. East Carolina University, Western Carolina University, UNC-Wilmington, and UNC-Greensboro are operating lab schools, too.

At its core, a lab school is simply an “innovative approach to learning,” said Middle Fork Principal Tasha Hall-Powell, who, alongside ASU faculty and administrators, has poured her energy into the project.

Lab schools operate much like charter schools, offering flexibility and independent decision-making to those who lead them. As “schools of choice,” the lab schools receive per pupil money from the state, local, and federal governments. They also get support from UNC, with a $2 million annual budget specially allocated by the legislature. 

Critics of lab schools originally complained the plan would usurp the authority of traditional public schools. Some saw it as a betrayal of public schools and the teachers they employ. When a school became a lab school, teachers and staff were told they could reapply for their positions.  

Lawmakers were essentially blaming teachers for the school’s low performance, Allen Bryant, an associate professor of elementary education at Appalachian State’s Reich College of Education, told NC Policy Watch in 2018 

“We are firing all of the teachers,” Bryant said. “They are invited to re-apply, which is as dehumanizing and belittling as you could imagine.”

Of the 45 staff members at Middle Fork Academy, only 18 returned after it became a lab school. 

The idea for lab schools has never been about who holds territory or control, Powell told CJ. Education, after all, is ultimately all about what’s best for the kids.

“What we’re trying to do is just mold, and create, and shape better children, so that when they go back into Winston-Salem schools you’ve got children you can work with in a way you wouldn’t have before,” Powell said.

UNC lab schools are able to build a curriculum from the ground up and experiment with different teaching techniques. Each part of the coursework is tailored to the needs of the respective students.

Middle Fork is focused on literacy, or more important, on English language arts, Frye told CJ. ASU’s goal is to develop students’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening abilities, she said.  

Rice, a renowned poet from Northern Ireland, has become a fixture in teaching students how to read, hear, speak, and write by exposing the children to the poetic art.

It’s just one example of how academic flexibility allows the school to experiment with creative teaching methods, Frye said.

A focus on literacy

Middle Fork’s curriculum, developed by ASU alum and adjunct professor Amie Snow, is always evolving. Snow, who works as curriculum director, turns new ideas into lesson plans. Teachers at the Walkerton school are free to give input — and voice concerns — about content areas that maybe aren’t working in the classroom.  

“They come in and they say, ‘We want you to try this and here’s why,’” said Melissa Boyd, a first-grade teacher at Middle Fork. “‘Tell us what you need to do this. How can we help you?’ That’s amazing. You don’t get that in a lot of other places. … They treat us like professionals. They know that we know what to do. They know we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know what we are supposed to do for these children.” 

Before coming to Middle Fork, Boyd was a middle school teacher at a traditional public school, where she noticed some missing pieces. Too many children couldn’t read, and it was affecting their entire educational experience.  

“I started to see gaps in how children were coming to middle school and they don’t know how to read,” Boyd said. “It was always a comprehension problem, but I was thinking there has to be more to it. If they can’t read it, how can they understand it? Maybe it’s not a comprehension problem, maybe it’s a decoding problem.”

Read to Achieve — a state-mandated effort to get K-3 students reading at grade level —  is falling short of its goals, Boyd said, and standardized tests aren’t showing promised gains.  

“[Legislators] keep pouring in money and resources and they aren’t changing anything,” Boyd said.

School district officials took various avenues to improve Middle Fork’s performance before it was turned into a lab school, Powell said, but nothing worked.

Student performance is on the rise, now that the school has the flexibility to mold its lessons to the needs of each student, Snow said. Previously, when the school remained under Winston Salem-Forsyth County district rules, the emphasis was to “drill down constantly in reading and math.” Now, all subjects meld, with reading serving as a foundation to science, social studies, math, and much more.

“I’ve been in public schools for 17 years as a teacher and as an instructional facilitator, but here has by far been the best year,” Snow said. “It has been the busiest. It’s definitely been worth every moment we have put into it.”

The Big Picture

Lab schools like Middle Fork are seeing an uptick in performance, but the journey for them, and others, hasn’t been without obstacles.

After the state legislature directed UNC to open eight schools, system administrators were faced with a monumental task: Make it work. No instruction manual existed, yet a deadline loomed, said Andrew Kelly, UNC senior vice president for strategy and policy. 

Just getting five schools up-and-running was a major success, Kelly told CJ.

“There are a lot of players involved, and you’re really merging two heavily regulated sectors,” Kelly said of K-12 and higher education. “None of this was particularly easy.”

In 2017, lawmakers added a ninth lab school to UNC’s slate. Given logistical challenges — namely, UNC-Charlotte‘s request for a one-year delay in the opening of its lab school — UNC officials are asking the number of lab schools be reduced to six.

Which doesn’t mean the university won’t be adding more. UNC just wants to get it right, Kelly said. Projects like this take time, and money, and “budgets are finite.”

The intertwining of the community, the school district, and the university is an important achievement for lab schools, said Kelly, and the General Assembly has shown a commitment toward making those partnerships a success.

“One of the things I hope people recognize is how terrific this is as a distillation of what universities can bring to their communities, beyond growing students and doing research. This is a mix of all of it. Of education, research, and public service,” Kelly told CJ.

It’s too soon to predict outcomes, but school districts, universities, and lab school staffers should get all the credit for realized successes, he said.

The students at Middle Fork are engaged, happy.

Poetry is flowing, and the classroom brims with conversation as the third-graders consider — with great concentration — the subject of their poems.

“We want you to think about your favorite place,” Frye says. “That could be lots of different places — like in your room, or on the sofa, or outside.”

Students begin spouting ideas. The gym. The mountains. The beach. With so many ideas, some voices get drowned out. But one, from a little girl in the back of the room, rises above. 

“School,” she says, much to the enthusiasm and joy of Frye, Rice, and Snow. And the first line of her poem, simple, and carved in large, block letters says, “I see my favorite teacher.”