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The Lab School, a ‘really special place’ at UW, faces uncertain future

The Albany County school district and the University of Wyoming failed to strike an agreement that would allow the historic school to continue operating on campus after 2025.

The Lab School in Laramie offers outdoor-based learning opportunities such as farm tours. (Albany County School District 1)

By Katie Klingsporn

LARAMIE, Wyo. — With an echoey gymnasium, small cafeteria and science room decked out with globes and an empty wasp nest, the Lab School appears much like a run-of-the-mill public school. 

But this K-8 facility is remarkable for a couple of reasons. It is thought to be Wyoming’s longest continually running school. Teachers-in-training at the University of Wyoming hone their skills here with hands-on experience they will take into their own classrooms one day. Also, though a part of the Albany County School District, the Lab School has long been housed on the UW campus — not in a district-owned facility. 

That unusual arrangement appears to be coming to an end. District and university explanations for why and how that is don’t quite match. But regardless of the reasons, school officials now confront the likelihood that they’ll need to find a new home if the Lab School is to stay open. 

For Lab School teachers and families, the news has come as a shock, said school Administrative Assistant Virginia Chai, who first came to the Lab School for work study as a UW College of Education student and later sent her four children here. 

“I never expected to ever sort of feel like a homeless school,” Chai said, looking down a hallway emptied out for the summer. “The school has been here so long.”

Educational stalwart

The Lab School was established in 1887 to serve secondary education students from counties without access to high school, according to Principal Brooke Fergon’s presentation to the Albany County District 1 school board in May. That was three years before Wyoming statehood.

“To our knowledge, the Lab School is the longest continually operating school in the state,” Fergon said. 

The Lab School in Laramie was established in 1887. (Albany County School District 1)

In 1913, it transitioned to the Training Preparatory School, used essentially as a learning laboratory by UW’s College of Education to help train university students preparing to teach high school. 

In 1999, the private school partnered with Albany County School District 1 to become a public school. Today, the Lab School incorporates student-centered learning and outdoor education into its programming, and College of Education students still train in its classrooms. It operates as a “school of choice” in the district, meaning any district family can enter a lottery to enroll their kids, regardless of where they live. 

“However, what is unique about us is that we are housed in a University of Wyoming facility,” Fergon said. 

The Lab School resides in the UW College of Education in a roughly 75-year-old building.

The arrangement has benefitted the school’s students by allowing them access to university equipment and facilities, and benefitted the university through proximity to training classrooms. But it’s unconventional for a public school to exist in a college-owned building.

UW and the school district have historically used a memorandum of understanding to lay out terms of tenancy. The first MOU, reached in 2008, was renewed in 2013, then again 2016 and 2019. But efforts begun in 2023 to further extend that arrangement never produced an updated agreement. 

Lab School students work on the floor of the school. (Albany County School District 1)

Rather than pursuing a multi-year arrangement, UW is offering the school a one-year extension that would last through the 2024-2025 school year. It appears that UW will stop housing or supporting the Lab School after 2025. 

Different narratives 

Accounts of the talks that preceded the extension differ. 

UW contends that the school district took no action on a proposed MOU, precipitating the university’s decision.

“Change is often difficult, but we have reached a stage at which continuing the current relationship beyond one year wouldn’t be optimal for either the district or the university,” UW President Ed Seidel said in a press release. UW intends to keep working with the district on educational partnerships, he added. 

District officials, meanwhile, say they believed they would come to an understanding with the college that would allow the school to stay for the foreseeable future. The district “absolutely” did not support this outcome, District 1 Superintendent Dr. John Goldhardt said, nor did it see it coming. 

Philosophical differences stalled talks when the parties began negotiating a new memorandum of understanding in 2023, Goldhardt said. 

Disagreement over which party pays for things like major maintenance in the aging building was a major sticking point. Because the Lab School operates in a facility not owned by the school district, it doesn’t fit neatly into aspects of the state’s public school funding and construction model. 

The Lab School is located in the College of Education building on the University of Wyoming campus. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“We cannot use our major maintenance money, any maintenance money, on buildings we do not own,” Goldhardt said. “That is a very clear protocol of the state.”

Goldhardt said the district continued efforts to reach an agreement and the university rejected multiple proposals. The one-year-only extension was a shock, he said. 

“Of course, they have a say in what they do with their own building. That I completely understand,” Goldhardt said. “But what I was really bothered by was this statement that we would not respond. It was like we did nothing, and that is not true.”

Seidel and other staff delivered the news to Goldhardt in a meeting in late May, he said. The superintendent believes the UW board of trustees has been discussing it for some time, he said. 

University Spokesperson Chad Baldwin refuted the notion that university trustees made the decision in closed-door sessions. The administration takes the lead on contracts and makes decisions, he said. Any discussion with the board consisted only of consultation.

The way the university sees it, Baldwin said, is that when it was time to renegotiate, UW offered an agreement with “relatively minor changes,” and the school district didn’t act on it. 

“For the last 10 months, including the last academic year, the school operated at UW with no formal agreement,” Baldwin said. 

Maintenance cost disputes weren’t the only factor in the university’s decision, according to Baldwin. 

Students of the Lab School, a K-8 school housed in a University of Wyoming building, have access to UW facilities like this computer lab. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The school no longer serves a significant role for teacher preparation in UW’s College of Education because the college now partners with many schools in the district, state of Wyoming and beyond to place future teachers, he said. Plus, having a district school located on campus presents security challenges. And, it is UW’s understanding that the district, which is facing declining enrollment and related financial concerns, is considering streamlining its operations in other school buildings in the community. 

Noting that discussions considered the future of the Lab School even before UW’s decision and announcement, the idea that this has come as a shock to the district is “a bit disingenuous,” Baldwin said. 

UW’s decision does not, however, reflect an erosion of the relationship between the College of Education and Lab School, College of Ed Associate Dean Alan Buss said.

“Albany County is absolutely one of our valued partner districts, and they always have been,” Buss said. “The Lab School has always been a major part of that, but we place [student teachers] in all of the schools in Albany County.”

It’s important to the college that UW retains a positive relationship with school districts, Buss said. “We have great teachers and great administrators, and we want to be able to make sure that our students are able to tap into that expertise.” 

What’s next 

The Lab School has built a reputation for untraditional outdoor-based offerings such as farm tours, visits to petroglyphs and trips to Yellowstone National Park. 

The school typically enrolls around 250 students, or about 25 per grade. Families enter a lottery to place their child in the school, but there is no additional cost for those who are admitted. The school is popular among university employees due to the proximity to their work. 

The Lab School isn’t for everyone, but the families who it works for are “very loyal,” Goldhardt said. 

“They’re rightfully worried and upset” by the recent news, he said. “There’s some that are really angry, there’s some that are really sad, and there’s some in between.” 

Lab School Administrative Assistant Virginia Chai talks about the school in front of a mural in the building in June 2024. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

The district has invited families and staff to come together to brainstorm proposals for the school’s future, Goldhardt said. There isn’t a lot of time, he added, and whatever emerges “will be different, but we want it to be a school district school of choice.” 

Administrative Assistant Chai, for one, would prefer to stay put. 

“There’s a lot of things that we do because we’re here that we wouldn’t really get to do quite as easily, or at all” from a different location, she said. “It would be nice if we could stay.”

UW officials acknowledged the impacts on faculty and staff members with kids enrolled in the school.  

“Fortunately, there are other outstanding schools in the local school district available to serve UW and other families,” UW Provost and Executive Vice President Kevin Carman said in a release. 

The Albany District 1 School Board is expected to take action on signing the one-year extension when it meets July 17. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.