UNC System Laboratory Schools

The UNC System Lab School initiative aims to provide enhanced educational programming to students in low-performing schools and to plan demonstration sites for the preparation of future teachers and school administrators.

In 2016, the N.C. General Assembly law passed requiring the UNC Board of Governors to establish eight lab schools aimed at improving student performance in low-performing schools. The legislation was modified in 2017 to require the creation of nine lab schools rather than eight. The System has 15 institutions that offer educator-preparation programs.

The establishment of the UNC System laboratory schools provides the opportunity to redefine and strengthen university partnerships with public schools, improve student outcomes, and provide high quality teacher and principal training. The UNC System Office selects universities that will utilize their Colleges of Education to establish and operate lab schools. The lab schools will then partner directly with local school districts to promote evidence-based teaching and school leadership, while offering real-world experience to the next generation of teachers and principals. UNC System Lab Schools will serve every part of the UNC System mission — teaching, research, and public service.

Community School attendees learn from local firefighters
Paramedic G. C. Hardee talks to students about fire safety at ECU’s Community School. (ECU Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Operating Lab Schools

Appalachian State University is the only UNC System institution to operate two lab schools — the Academy at Middle Fork, in Walkertown, NC, and the Academy at Elkin, in Elkin, NC.

The Academy at Middle Fork is a literacy-focused lab school. The school uses a workshop approach that improves and enriches literacy via immersive reading and writing instruction. Academy students, referred to as scholars, are actively engaged in adaptive, guided, small group instruction where teachers model effective reading and writing strategies.  

Scholars have the opportunity to read a wide variety of texts featuring characters and themes that are identifiable to them. They also participate in a variety of literacy-based activities, including author visits, special programming, and field trips. For example, Literacy Casts, hosted by App State’s Anderson Reading Clinic, provide online collaborative and interactive experiences where students build community and develop literacy skills.

Literacy is the foundation of the school’s balanced curriculum and the ongoing partnership with the university provides opportunities for collaboration with faculty and students to develop new and engaging models of instruction.

Video: Academy at Middle Fork students discuss their school pledge and what it means to be a Mountaineer

The Academy at Elkin opened in August 2022 as a “school within a school” at Elkin Elementary, with an anticipated enrollment of 100 students in second through fourth grades. The school engages students in exploration-based learning.

Learn more from The Board Table podcast: School Boards and Educator Preparation Programs.

The mission of East Carolina University’s Community School is to educate the whole child through a web of support that thrives through our partnerships. Through collaborative efforts, our school district partner (Pitt County Schools), university partners, and community partners help to meet the varying needs of our scholars, their families, and the Community School’s faculty and staff.  Pitt County Schools does an amazing job of providing child nutrition services, transportation, and facility support. Partners, such as the Brody School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, the College of Allied Health Sciences, Beast Philanthropy, and the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina help to meet our learning community’s physical needs. ECU’s College of Health and Human Performance and community agencies, such as PRIDE NC, help to meet social/emotional needs. The College of Education provides direct academic support to our scholars, as well as works to meet the professional development needs of the Community School’s faculty and staff. Again, through these partnerships, the Community School is positioned to positively impact Eastern North Carolina and carry out ECU’s motto Servire – “to serve”.

Hear from Tracy Cole, Principal of the ECU Community School

East Carolina University Laboratory School with partner Pitt County Schools

North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, in partnership with Guilford County Schools, opened the Aggie Academy laboratory school and welcomed over 80 students in August of 2022.

Aggie Academy serves students in grades 3, 4, and 5 and features a curriculum with a strong STEAM focus (Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, Arts and Math). Located less than five minutes from the North Carolina A&T main campus, Aggie Academy is a place where students enjoy hands-on and experiential learning and benefit from the latest in academic best practices and research and student success initiatives.

Learn more about North Carolina A&T’s Aggie Academy

Carolina Community Academy (CCA) is UNC-Chapel Hill’s new lab school opened in collaboration with Person County Schools. This co-located school started serving a new class of young Tar Heel kindergarteners in August 2022 and will add a grade level each year, eventually serving students in grades K-2. With a whole child approach to student learning, CCA has an integrated curriculum with intentional focus on student well being, social emotional supports for learning, and engagement of families and the community. CCA is a clinical experience site for a variety of university degree programs, from MAT students to pre-service public health and library science majors.

Carolina Community Academy students look closely
UNC School of Education | October 31, 2022

Niner University Elementary is a trauma-invested school where we work to address traumas that impact students’ educational success. NUE’s approach is centered on building trust and relationships with students and families by fostering personal connections, culturally responsive teaching, smaller class sizes with an emphasis in restorative practices, small group instruction and social emotional learning. NUE values community assets and partnerships, through these NUE provides arts integration through music, theater, art and movement classes as well as free after school program and summer camp. Additionally our full-time school counselor, student support counselor and university and community partnerships allow us to provide extra support such as play therapy and social skills groups while our full-time social worker works with families to eliminate obstacles to  their personal and educational success. All of these components allow us to support the whole child in thriving emotionally, socially and academically.

D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy is a K-8 year-round public school opened by University of North Carolina Wilmington, in partnership with New Hanover County Schools.

The school, which now serves around 200 students in downtown Wilmington, transitioned from a public middle school to a K-8 public school in 2018 as a complete redesign of a preparatory lab school centered on collaboration between the UNC Wilmington, New Hanover County Schools, and community partners. Today, D.C. Virgo offers a family-friendly environment, with a focus on the whole child and opportunities that extend to the UNCW campus and broader community.

Unique aspects of the school include the comprehensive approach to sustainability in education, which garnered the U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools(ED-GRS) award. Aspects of students, staff, and partner collaboration for the ED-GRS recognition included the Action-Based Learning Room, the Outdoors Learning Garden, and the Restorative Room. The school is also governed by a Support Team that brings together school administrators, teacher leaders, and the College of Education faculty and administrators. Each year, Faculty-in-Residence from the College of Education collaborate in targeted areas such as interdisciplinary learning, MTSS support, blended/online learning, or bolstering student engagement. At D.C. Virgo, the staff strives for a whole child, whole school, community approach.

The Catamount School (TCS) is a middle school learning community where all students are valued and care for themselves and others. We promote health and wellness and a commitment to learning through experience in a caring, collaborative, and socially just environment. We recognize that students have a variety of learning differences, and we work to identify an individualized approach so that each student has the opportunity to succeed. 

All TCS educators take collective responsibility to increase the academic growth and achievement of each student.  We work to maintain a safe and supportive learning environment for students and staff, and are committed to developing a diverse group of highly qualified leaders who empower others.  TCS fully engages families, the community, and staff to work together for the success of each child. The culture reflects the collaboration with Western Carolina University and Smoky Mountain High School. By accessing resources and personnel, students have access to a multiplicity of learning experiences which influence their overall academic achievement, including daily health and physical education, music, arts, and other enrichment activities, clubs and electives, leadership experiences, and mentorship from experts in a variety of academic fields. These academic and enrichment activities encourage students to learn more about themselves and others, increase achievement, and contribute to the school community. Finally, integration of pre-service teacher professionals at the Catamount School is immersive and widespread with undergraduate and graduate clinical placements in middle grades education to principal preparation, school counseling, clinical psychology, nursing, and other health professions. 


What is the purpose of the UNC System Lab Schools?

According to the legislation, the purpose of the lab schools is to “improve student performance in local school administrative units with low-performing schools 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.” N.C.G.S. § 116-239.5(b)  

 Nine universities with educator preparation programs located across North Carolina must design and operate lab schools in eligible school districts where at least 25 percent of schools have been classified as low-performing, based on student achievement data.  Three of the nine laboratory schools may operate in non-qualifying school districts if the district elects to be included in the initiative in partnership with a participating university. The legislation governing the laboratory schools project focuses on three broad goals: (1) to improve the performance of students in local school administrative units with low-performing schools; (2) to provide exposure and training for teachers; and (3) to provide exposure and training for principals.

What do the UNC System Lab Schools have in common?

Each is committed to do the following:

  • Deliver high expectations to prepare students for college and life
  • Ensure students learn to read and communicate effectively
  • Address the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students
  • Harness the benefits of partnerships to strengthen learning, teaching, and school leadership

How were the universities selected to participate?

Two primary factors were considered in determining which institutions would participate in the initiative: geography and the capacity of the institutions’ schools of education and educator preparation programs. In considering the capacity of the educator preparation programs, the UNC System considered the number of undergraduate teacher candidates, the size of the education school faculty, and the amount of research money available to the schools.

For more information please contact Dr. Clay Smith.