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Thanks to a $3 million “Investing in Innovation” grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, Region One ESC, South Texas College, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, PSJA ISD, La Joya ISD, and South Texas ISD will participate in a new professional nursing dual enrollment project.

EDINBURG, RGV – When PSJA ISD and South Texas College secured official approval for a pilot program that would allow high school students to earn an Associate’s Degree in Nursing, it received national attention.

Schools from as far afield as New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Wisconsin called STC to ask what steps they would have to take to develop such a program. Texas school districts, such as Grand Prairie, also wanted to know more so they paid a visit to the Rio Grande Valley.

“I believe this will be the blueprint for increasing the pipeline for nursing workforce. I believe this will be one of the solutions to answering the demand for the shortage of nurses, not only in the Lower Rio Grande Valley but across the state and across the nation,” said Jayson Valerio, DNP, RN, interim dean of nursing and allied health at STC. “With the lessons learned from the pilot, I think this will be the blueprint for increasing the pipeline for nursing workforce.”

Valerio appeared before the Texas Board of Nursing in Austin to explain the merits of the pilot program in July 2015. “That was the most grueling and gruesome one hour and 19 minutes I have had to go through. I understand where the Board was coming from because these young student nurses are only 17 or 18 years old. There was no model in the nation like this one. They had a hard time with it but, thankfully, we got it approved as a pilot,” Valerio said.

Investing in Innovation grant

The Rio Grande Guardian interviewed Valerio following a news conference at Region One Education Service Center. The event was held to announce that the pilot project, administered by South Texas College, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, had been scaled up, thanks to a $3 million “Investing in Innovation” grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Thanks to the grant, STC, PSJA, and DHR will be joined by Region One, La Joya ISD, and South Texas ISD, in an innovative professional nursing dual enrollment project, Project Health Education and Leadership for ALL, (Project HEAL²). The aim is to significantly impact the opportunity for high school students interested in a health professions career.

“The nursing career pipeline will be forever changed by Project HEAL2,” Dr. Shirley A. Reed, president of South Texas College, predicted. “The student talent in the RGV is exceptional, as well as the dedication of the college’s nursing faculty. Together with committed partners, we will be validating a new national model for the preparation of registered nurses.”

Valerio explained how Project HEAL² would work. Fifty students from each of the participating school districts – PSJA, La Joya and South Texas – will have the opportunity to enroll in first-year college pre-requisite courses through STC that will take them on a path to earning an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) as they earn their high school diploma.

The Project HEAL² initiative expands on the successful pilot-program by DHR, PSJA and STC, explained Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez, Region One Executive Director.

“First piloted in the PSJA school district we observed amazing results, the young men and women who participated in the program met the challenge and proved that it could be done,” Gonzalez said. “Sometimes to provide these learning and career opportunities for our students, it involves innovative and creative thinking; this is exactly what occurred when our partners met to develop Project HEAL².”

Valerio said the first cohort of Project HEAL² students, consisting of 9th and 10th grade students, will have the opportunity to attend the local GEAR UP College for All: Health Science Professions Conference (C4A). He said this will introduce the students to healthcare careers and provide both students and their parents with a “unique insight from those working in the field.” Concurrently, in the 11th and 12th grades of the cohort group, each participating school district has been allotted 50 slots for participation by students with more intensive, dual enrollment courses, Valerio explained.

Valerio said the students will have access to continued awareness opportunities and will take first year college pre-requisite courses through STC. In addition, they will be assigned a nursing mentor, and participate in experiential rotations at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. Project HEAL² students will also have access to tutors and mentors to help prepare for the Health Education Systems Incorporated (HESI) exam, Valerio said, which prepares student nurses to challenge the professional licensure exam.

Upon graduation from high school, Project HEAL² students, Valerio said, will be eligible to apply for admission to the South Texas College Associates Degree in Nursing (ADN) for second year nursing content. Each participating school district is guaranteed 20 slots into the ADN Nursing Program for qualified students.

“We have a big nursing shortage in the Valley. The Texas Board of Nursing divides the state into eight regions. The Rio Grande Valley region has the highest demand for nurses and will have until 2030. So, Project HEAL² will increase the pipeline for the nursing workforce,” Valerio said.

“It will also improve the number of minority nurses. According to Texas nursing workforce statistics for 2016, only 14.9 percent of nurses that are working right now are Hispanic or Latino. We need to mirror the Hispanic population. We can increase the diversity of the nursing workforce.”

Improving the nursing pipeline is vital for the Valley, Valerio said.

“Looking at the RN FTE supply and demand for RGV by 2015-2030, our region will need more RNs than anywhere else in the state. Project HEAL² will increase the pipeline of students going into the nursing profession, enhance the academic preparation for Associate Degree in Nursing, increase the rate of high school graduation, and produce more culturally diverse in the nursing workforce.”

Mature enough?

At the news conference, Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA, said he has had to reassure critics that some high school students have the maturity to become nurses at a young age. King pointed out that the nation sends young men into combat situations at the same age. He said he would trust these students if he was on a hospital bed.

Asked if he thought high school students are mature enough, STC’s Valerio said: “If I were a patient in a hospital right now, I would trust my life to them. When I went before the Texas Board of Nursing, I anticipated a lot of questions about their physical maturity of the students and their psychological maturity. We built safety nets so we could assess their maturity every step of the way. For example, we evaluated their emotional intelligence, and before we exposed them to the clinical hospital and taking care of real patients, we did simulation work in a laboratory.”

Valerio added: “One of the initiatives we have with this grant is as early as 8th and 9th and 10th grade, we have a robust early awareness and recruitment program We expose them to life in a hospital. We have cyber mentoring. We only want and take students who want to go into the nursing workforce. We can plan every semester what courses they have to take.”

La Joya ISD

One of the speakers at the news conference was Gisela Saenz, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at La Joya ISD. Asked to explain the new program, Saenz said:

“It is a unique opportunity that has come about through an innovative grant funded by the U.S. Department of Education. Working with our partners, it is an opportunity to offer students an associate’s degree in nursing. There is a shortage of nurses in the Valley and the country. This is an opportunity for us to fill the nursing pipeline with Valley students for Valley institutions such as Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.”

Saenz said she expects a lot of interest from students at La Joya’s Academy of Health Science Professions, along with other high schools. She predicted it will have a profound impact on the community.

“The program is free of charge to the students so that, in itself, will be impactful for Valley families. One of the goals is to fill the nursing pipeline with students who are under-represented in the industry, such as minority students and students from low-income families. That, in itself, will have an impact on not just the lives of the students and their families but the communities also,” Saenz said.

Asked if she though students are mature enough to start a nursing profession straight out of high school, Saenz said:

“As Dr. Reed said, it is a very intensive program. I think the students can handle it. The students selected have to have a certain level of academic achievement in order to be selected for the program. In addition to the pre-requisites, they will have a lot of support along the way from the school district, from STC and from Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. We are very confident our students will be very prepared.”

Saenz added: “I want to thank DHR, STC, and Region One for putting the grant together and allowing us to be one of the partners. We are very excited to be able to offer our students this opportunity to gain an associate’s degree in nursing.”

Student perspective

Guadalupe Salinas is one of the eight PSJA students who successfully completed the STC-PSJA nursing pilot program. A student at PSJA Memorial High School, Salinas said the recognition the eight students have received has been “mind-blowing.”

Asked what the four-semester pilot program was like, Salinas said: “It has been a very stressful program with many rigorous courses. We have sacrificed so much but we have made it through to earn an Associate’s Degree in Nursing. Nursing is a very hard profession, not many can make it through school. I saw that with my peers.”

Asked if the eight PSJA students have the maturity to work in hospitals, Salinas said: “Of course. There may be other 18-year-olds who do not but we have matured, we have learned, we have been exposed. We are capable of taking care of an adult or a kid or a baby. Anyone. We are capable.”

Salinas said she herself will not go into the labor market just yet. “No stopping, I want to go on to college.” Asked what her advice would be to the PSJA, La Joya and South Texas student nurses at the news conference, Salinas said: “I completely support the students that are here today. They are capable of doing it. We have cleared the pathway for them.”