East Carolina University’s youngest students got their first look inside the ECU Lab School during open house on Aug. 24.
“I love it, everything,” exclaimed fourth-grader Breanna Daniels after seeing her new classroom.
The scene was repeated over and over — families touring the school, students entering their classrooms wide-eyed and grinning, and all leaving hopeful for the year to come.
“I think it is going to be something awesome for the kids,” said Erica Gray, Breanna’s mother. “It is not the traditional type of classroom that I was raised on. It is about taking a whole new learning style and seeing if it can work, so we shall see.”
The journey that brought Gray and 74 other families to open house began on Nov. 1, 2016, when UNC President Margaret Spellings announced that ECU was selected as one of eight universities across the state to open a laboratory school as a training site for future teachers and administrators.
Dr. Laura Bilbro-Berry, the College of Education’s director of partnerships and enrollment management, said everyone involved adopted a proactive approach following the announcement.
“We knew the need for something like this was present in eastern North Carolina because we see it every day and we knew we would be poised to take on the initiative,” she said.
Bilbro-Berry said ECU’s partnership with Pitt County Schools has been critical to the school’s success. It’s one of the first two lab schools to open in North Carolina.
“We could not have done this without the cooperation of Pitt County Schools…they have been very forthcoming with helping us figure this out,” she said. “All of those things that had to happen from transportation to nutrition to facilities…they have been really helpful with everything.”
Housed in a renovated wing of South Greenville Elementary School, the ECU Lab School is designed to serve students who have underperformed in their traditional school setting by building upon the students’ strengths. The Lab School will not only address students’ academic needs, but will also provide students with additional resources to enhance their development physically, socially and emotionally. Additionally, the Lab School will operate on an extended day schedule with students remaining in school until 5 p.m. As a tradeoff, Lab School students will not be given homework.
“We want to change the focus from the teacher being the center of attention…to [the students] being in charge of it,” said ECU Lab School Principal Tasha Rodriguez. “Just like a traditional school, it is going to take time going over our way and make it so the teachers become more like facilitators.”
After spending 14 years in traditional schools around eastern North Carolina, Rodriguez said she jumped at the opportunity to lead a new approach to teaching.
“I had always had this vision as an educator that there was something better for our kids in that what we have been doing has not necessarily been working,” she said. “I saw that the Lab School was bringing a different lens that was connected to that feeling I had and I lit up. I said, ‘Wow, that’s it!’”
The school’s team includes fourth-grade teacher Daniel Henderson, third-grade teacher Kenyada Pretlow, second-grade teacher Marie Hartley and extended day coordinator Jordan Hudson. All are ECU College of Education alumni who previously taught in Pitt, Greene and Lenoir counties.
While the first year of operation will only include second, third and fourth grades, ECU plans to add Pre-K, first, and fifth grade classes to the lab school for the 2018-19 school year.
Pretlow, the veteran of the group with 15 years of teaching experience, said she is excited to focus on the student and will encourage parents to have an active role in their child’s education.
“We are not only trying to build the child’s self-esteem, but we are also helping the parents as well,” Pretlow said. “We are providing them with skills and strategies to practice at home…and letting them know they are important stakeholders in their child’s education.”
ECU Lab School students will have the freedom to explore topics they are curious about with the support of their teachers.
“I can see the wheels turning in their heads with what is possible,” Rodriguez said. “When we talk to them you can tell they just want to love learning again.”
David Theriault, father of second-grader Christopher Theriault, said he is excited for his son.
“He wanted to get into robotics because we were watching a show and he saw people with missing limbs, and he wants to make a hand for someone,” Theriault said.
“I’m also going to make my own Groot and Rocket,” Christopher said, referring to characters from the popular “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie.
Amelia Pledger, mother of fourth-grader Luis Pledger, hopes her son will thrive in the school. “I want him to use his creativity to the max. He engineers things,” she said.
Luis has taken the bearings out of fidget spinners and planted a vegetable and flower garden in their yard. “He’s grown watermelons from seed, squash from seed. He’s into everything,” Pledger said.
Dr. Grant Hayes, dean of the College of Education, said one of the most rewarding pieces of the process of creating the school has been the involvement of departments across campus.
“Faculty and staff across the university have worked extremely hard to make sure this initiative is off to a great start,” Hayes said. “The ECU Lab School will be a demonstration site to provide exposure and training for teachers and principals to address challenges in high-needs schools, and be used to determine best practices, provide educational research and foster professional development.”
With classes beginning Aug. 28, the anticipation of what the school could mean for the students, community and ECU was palpable at open house.
“I think it gives ECU an opportunity to provide an integrated network of service and support, really leveraging the great things we do on campus, from the medical side all the way to the College of Education,” Bilbro-Berry said. “We are going to try out a bunch of new things and see what works, and in turn we will be able to share those things with the rest of Pitt County Schools for the benefit of our region.”