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Career Prescription -- Local students opting for new nursing charter school

January 29, 2013

PROVIDENCE — Jessica Olarte wants to be a registered nurse and midwife. Khadijah Moody's goal is to be a pediatrician. Kahila Leigh is interested in the challenges of psychiatric nursing while Ayowole Tom-Jones desires to work in pediatrics. All of these young people with “healing hands” attend the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School, a new high school located in downtown Providence.
Now in its second year, the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School (RINI-MC) is a unique, four-year program that bridges the gap between high school and college for students interested in pursuing careers in nursing and healthcare. Students attend the school for four years, from grades 10 through 12-plus, and graduate at the end of their fourth year with both a high school diploma and accumulated college credits and skills that they can transfer to a post-secondary school.
The RINI-MC is a public charter school, so it is tuition-free. While originally designed to target students in school districts under intervention, such as Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls, the school also accepts students from other Rhode Island communities. The application process is open to any student who has successfully completed the 9th grade and is entering 10th grade. Enrollment is done through a “blind admissions lottery” and applications can be obtained on-line at www.tomorrowsnurses.org.
At the helm of the RINI-MC is Robert Pilkington, who was formerly superintendent of the successful Beacon Charter School in Woonsocket. Other key administrators include Pamela McCue, academic dean and chief nursing officer, in charge of the curriculum, and Donna M. Policastro, executive director of the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, which sponsors the charter school.
The RINI-MC is still a high school and teaches the core subjects of math, science, English and social studies required to obtain a high school diploma by the Rhode Island Department of Education. However, the students have a longer school day, attending classes from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and they receive instruction specifically targeted for nursing and health care professions.

Pamela McCue, a nurse and licensed nurse practitioner who is pursuing her doctorate, said the faculty includes a mix of traditional teachers, college-level professors, “second-career” certified professionals, and adjunct faculty from local colleges. The curriculum has been developed in conjunction with the Rhode Island State Nurses Association in accordance with college-level program requirements and industry standards.

“In addition to the core subjects, the students are getting a solid foundation in the math and sciences needed for nursing, pharmacy, biotech, EMT...any type of healthcare career,” said McCue. She added that the charter school is designed to be “a pipeline for the healthcare workforce.”

During their four years, and particularly in the 12-plus grade, the students take accredited college courses from the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island. Students have the potential to earn enough credits to graduate from the RINI-MC as a college sophomore.

“It's the first of its kind in the country,” said Pilkington, proudly. He said he became aware of the “middle college” concept over a decade ago, but establishing such a model in Rhode Island required “the right alchemy.” He said it took a three-pronged effort by representatives of labor, management and education to convince the state's Board of Regents to approve the charter school.

Policastro also said that the Rhode Island State Nurses Association had been considering some type of a “prep school” model due to the fact that many students coming out of local high schools and entering nursing programs lacked the basic science and mathematics foundations required for medical training. Concerns about preparedness, coupled with a predicted shortage of nurses in the foreseeable future, prompted discussions about finding a way to both encourage more young men and women to consider a medical career and equip them with the necessary skills to succeed.

After several years in the making, the Rhode Island Board of Regents finally approved the charter school last year and the first class of 136 students came on board in leased space on the fourth floor of the Roger Williams University building at 150 Washington Street. In September, a second wave of students brought the student body up to 204 and necessitated the leasing of additional space at a nearby building at 335 Westminster Street. Next year, the school expects to reach its 272-student capacity allowed by the current charter. Longer range, Pilkington said he is hoping to see the charter school expand into its own building.

The atmosphere is different from that of a traditional high school, with the focus being on the nursing and healthcare industry. The school uniform is “scrubs” so students have the look of healthcare professionals. The class sizes are small, with an average of 17 students. Most of the students rely on public bus transportation, and the student body (so far) is about 85 percent female and 15 percent male. Students are allowed to plays sports for the high school of their home town, but the longer school day makes participation difficult.

However, McCue points out that the students at RINI-MC get to do things like observe live surgery in a hospital operating room. Students also have the chance to take courses to become certified nursing assistants, which allows them to work in a nursing home or hospital during the summer months. The RINI-MC has a Junior Red Cross club and is working on forming others, and the school does hold a prom, she said.

“There is a high level of engagement here. The students are part of a program which raises productivity to a level that I've never seen in public education,” said Pilkington. He added that the RINI-MC is also funding its programs, which include the college-level courses, within its allotted budget and at the per-pupil rate allowed for state charter schools.

There has been additional financial help, including the construction of a nursing skills laboratory that was paid for with grants from the Rhode Island State Nurses Association, Rhode Island Nurses Institute and Bristol County Savings Bank.

While some students admitted to missing certain aspects of a typical high school experience, such as the extra-curricular activities, sports, events like “Spirit Week” and being part of a larger, more co-educational population, most said they were happy they chose the RINI-MC. The focus on the nursing career paths, smaller class sizes allowing for more personalized attention and sense of professionalism were mentioned by many as positives.

Soneh Korlie, of Pawtucket, had been a student at Tolman High School when she learned about the RINI-MC from her guidance counselor. “I'm so happy I got accepted. I always wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “And the classes are smaller, so there is more one-on-one.”

Korlie obtained her Certified Nursing Assistant license and worked at Miriam Hospital last summer. She hopes to continue her education at Rhode Island College. “It was a good transition,” she added.

Jessica Olarte, of Pawtucket, had also attended Tolman High School until her parents read about the RINI-MC in an on-line news article and urged her to apply. She, too, said she is glad she made the switch because it will help her pursue a lifelong dream of becoming a registered nurse and obtaining her midwife license.

“I always wanted to be a midwife, I always liked babies and that stuff. And what's taught here is not like a regular high school...you're learning what you want to be,” Olarte stated. She added that she hopes to pursue her nursing education at Salve Regina University once she graduates from RINI-MC.

Ayowole Tom-Jones, of Providence, started off at Central High School and changed over to pursue a nursing career that involves children. “I've always looked to help people. I want to be in pediatrics. That's what I have wanted to be since I was young,” said Tom-Jones. “This gives me the better experience in what I want to be.”

Jocelyn Alves, originally from Pawtucket and now living in Central Falls, said she previously attended a charter school for training in construction but later became interested in nursing. “I want to become an LPN or RN and this gives us a good head start,” she stated.

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