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UNC Charlotte is taking the next step in expanding its impact on the Charlotte community by creating its own elementary school. Niner University Elementary will be considered a lab school, an initiative started by the North Carolina General Assembly and the UNC system to promote teacher training for their students and to provide resources to students at low-performing schools.


Beginning in August 2019, the school will be located in a renovated and secured wing of James Martin Middle School. The elementary school will be a free, non-traditional public school. The school will begin its journey by serving 150 students in K-2 from the Charlotte Mecklenburg School (CMS) district. The elementary school is planning to “add an additional grade level each year until 2023.” Once it reaches maximum capacity, it will serve 500 students.


By collaborating with CMS, the school will be able to provide food and transportation for its students. Niner University Elementary will be able to differentiate itself from other public schools in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School district, but it will still follow the North Carolina Standard Course of Study. The school’s main mission is to “develop lifelong learners and caring citizens.” The school will use research-based teaching methods to fulfill their goals for the elementary school.


According to Pamela Broome, the Lab School Coordinator, the process of creating the elementary school has been a “cross-campus” endeavor. Broome stated that there are two teams working on the creation of the elementary school. The core design team is “composed of faculty members and staff members from across different departments on campus.” There is also a curriculum design team. The members of this team are from the CATO College of Education. The expansion of the goals, pillars and mission of the elementary school have been developed by the curriculum design team.


Kristie Opiola, an assistant professor of counseling and part of the team creating this elementary school, stated that the school is attempting to support students who may be struggling not only academically but also socially or emotionally. According to Opiola, one of the main goals is to ensure that teachers and other members of the elementary school view the students as people, not just students from a specific grade level. Opiola hopes that the elementary school will be able to provide a “holistic approach to education.” Socioemotional learning will be an important aspect of the curriculum and teaching practices. The school will also have a diversity component, specifically hiring or training teachers to be well-informed of their student’s diverse backgrounds and experiences.  


Arts as a method of instruction will also be used widely throughout the school. The school will follow the standards set out by the state, but the practices used by teachers and other support staff in the school will vary from other traditional public schools. Opiola stated that arts will be one method that will be introduced to different classrooms, rather than it just be confined to one, small academic space. The hope is that the students are able to “learn through the style that best matches their learning needs.”


Open enrollment for the school began in February. The school is not operated through a lottery system, rather it is on a first come, first serve basis. In order to be eligible, the students have to be from certain CMS elementary schools. The future educators of this school are currently being recruited and interviews are beginning soon.


One of the unique aspects of the lab schools is that the elementary school is able to collaborate with UNC Charlotte and its students. The school will have teacher, counselor and principal candidates from UNC Charlotte. Broome and Opiola stated that the candidates will have more exposure through hands-on learning. They will have the ability to grow and learn. Teacher candidates from the Cato College of Education will be selected to spend two semesters of their junior year at the elementary school to enhance their learning and experience.


This endeavor is cross-disciplinary. Students from the School of Nursing and interns from the School of Social Work will also be able to help throughout the school in different settings and for different purposes. There will also be a mental health program for the elementary school students where play therapy and expressive arts will be used. Students from these disciplines will be able to participate in the program and receive guidance from a licensed counselor and other health practitioners.

To learn more about the elementary school and potential opportunities to volunteer, visit: Niner University Elementary School

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