A new alternative program allowing students as young as high school freshmen to train for health care careers — whether preparing for medical school or becoming a physical therapist — could be available to Richland students by fall 2017.
Details about the prototype program, tentatively called Richland Health & Science Academy, are fluid.
It could be based in Columbia Basin College’s new health sciences building under construction in central Richland, but the district also wants students to maintain ties with their home high schools for the purpose of sports and extracurricular activities.
Officials are planning for an enrollment of 400 students at maximum capacity, but that could change. Student aptitude would likely be part of the admissions process.
“If we have too many students, that’s a good problem,” said Superintendent Rick Schulte.
The goal is to help students get an early start on a career path in a diverse and growing industry, officials said. But it also represents a new approach to education, where the barriers between earning a high school diploma, a college degree and work experience are torn down.
“We’re trying to figure out more relevant, less expensive and more robust pathways,” said CBC President Rich Cummins. “We need to blur the distinctions between our silos.”
Creating a pathway
Richland school board member Gordon Comfort called for the development of an education program related to health care during his campaign last fall. School board President Rick Jansons said the district and past boards have long wanted to develop such a program.
The need for such a program is clear, as health care has become a large part of the Mid-Columbia’s economy, officials said.
Combined with an aging population and a reputation as a good place to retire, there’s already high demand for a variety of health care professionals, from doctors and nurses to pharmacists and occupational therapists. Even future veterinarians could benefit from what the academy offers.
“I bet it’s going to be very successful because it’s great for kids,” Jansons said.
Discussions between the district and college have been enthusiastic, Schulte and Cummins said.
They also have spoken with officials at Kadlec Regional Medical Center about participating. Hospital spokesman Jim Hall said he was not privy to those conversations, but given Kadlec’s past and current efforts working with students, he believes it’s something the hospital would be interested in.
“We fully support any effort to get students into health care,” Hall told the Herald. “The earlier the age group the better.”
A team of district and college officials is being selected to lead the planning for the academy. Two similar programs in Montana and California have been identified. Schulte said the planning team would likely visit those schools to see how they work, and learn from any past mistakes or issues they encountered.
Cummins has suggested the fourth floor of the college’s new health sciences building for the academy’s home. The space has no other planned tenant and could be modified for classrooms and lab space.
Laying the groundwork
Because planning is still in the early stages, it’s unclear what the academy’s exact format would be.
High school teachers and college instructors would be assigned to the academy, but students would also be free to pursue elective classes, as well as other activities via their home high schools.
Work-study and internships would be a critical part of the student experience and require the participation of health care providers.
“We want the students to see firsthand this is what that means on the job,” Schulte said.
Ultimately, the program would provide everything from a high school diploma up to an associate or bachelor’s degree — even some coursework needed to apply for medical school.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions about funding for the program, cooperative agreements on operations and administration, or whether anything from state regulations to teacher union contracts could hamper the academy’s launch.
Student recruitment likely won’t happen until the winter of 2016-17.
Richland’s proposal isn’t unlike other other Tri-City magnet high school programs, such as Tri-Tech Skills Center and the science- and technology-centric Delta High School.
Tri-Tech, which has some training courses related to health care, generally only serves juniors and seniors. Delta sheds some students as classes progress and coursework becomes more demanding.
Schulte envisions the academy having numerous “exit and entry points” for students, meaning a student could get in early and withdraw if the program doesn’t fit their needs, he said. Older high school students could be admitted if they find their interests aligning with a health care profession.
“We have a system now where you don’t become pre-med until after finishing high school,” Schulte said. “Early exposure helps you make decisions.”
Jansons said the academy’s success could lead to similar programs by other districts in the Mid-Columbia and around the state. It may even play a role in the state’s K-12 funding issue — the Washington Supreme Court has called for increased funding, but also fundamental reform of the state’s education system.
“This is the fundamental reform the court was talking about,” Jansons said.