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IN THE CLASSROOM

High Schools Tap Students' Interest in Medicine

Catholic campuses find a high response to programs that focus on the health-care field.

October 08, 2003|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

The 27 young women striding through the halls of Inglewood's Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital bright and early on Tuesday mornings wear white lab coats and purposeful expressions. It would be easy, at first glance, to mistake them for members of the medical staff.

But these 13- and 14-year-olds are high school freshmen, the first class admitted to a new Health Careers Program at St. Mary's Academy across the street.

The specially selected students at this all-girls, Catholic campus arrive at school an hour early once a week, don their lab coats and, notebooks in hand, set off for an up-close lesson. Hospital administration, rehabilitation services, pediatrics, respiratory therapy, infection control and emergency medicine are just some of the topics covered.

By the time these students graduate from the college-preparatory school in 2007, they are expected to learn about the wide range of health care professions, volunteer at hospitals and clinics, and try some clinical procedures. Their courses, with a strong emphasis on math and sciences, will include the history of medicine, bioethical issues, anatomy and physiology, and honors or Advanced Placement biology and chemistry.

The goal is not to prepare the students to enter the workforce directly from high school but to ready them for college and encourage them to pursue careers later in health professions, school officials said.

"This is not in any way a vocational program. We're not training them to be medical technicians or nursing assistants," said Jeanne Jagatich Fisher, director of the St. Mary's program. "We think we can help them succeed with their college studies by exposing them to the wide range of health-care professions, teaching them what each requires and helping them navigate through this vast and complex world."

St. Mary's, whose students are predominantly African American or Latino, started the program to help ease shortages of qualified workers in health-care fields, especially among minorities.

The school also hoped the program would help boost enrollment, which had declined in recent years as economically pressed families in some of the neighborhoods it serves were increasingly unable to pay tuition.

A number of other urban Catholic schools around the nation have undertaken similar innovations -- forming partnerships with local business communities, teaming up with universities or adding specialized instruction to their college-prep curricula -- to help pay the bills and attract new families.

"There really are some wonderful initiatives out there," said Sister Mary Frances Taymans, who heads the secondary schools section of the National Catholic Educational Assn. "They are not widespread by any means, but we are seeing a lot more" innovations ranging from student internships with an important community industry to ways to offset schooling costs for parents with little to spend on tuition.

Health careers programs have been well received in both Catholic and public schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has two such campuses among its sought-after "magnet" schools -- Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles' Eastside and the King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science in South Los Angeles. Both are affiliated with nearby public hospitals.

A Catholic campus, Providence High School in Burbank, formed two popular "focus" programs -- health careers and media communications -- about 15 years ago. The programs capitalize on the school's location adjacent to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and on its proximity to the movie studios and post-production facilities that dot Burbank and neighboring Glendale.

"We are a solid Catholic, coed, college-prep school. We asked ourselves, 'What is the special dimension we could add to that?' " Providence's principal, Sister Lucille Dean, recalled.

Limited to 30 students per grade level each, the Providence programs attract far more applicants than there are spaces, Dean said. Most of the families whose son or daughter did not get into either of the specialty programs usually end up choosing Providence anyway, she said.

Maria Kvapil, vice principal of San Gabriel Mission High School, a Catholic, all-girls campus, said the health-careers program for juniors and seniors "has definitely helped interest in the school. It's been a good recruitment tool for us."

St. Mary's, which closely patterned its new program on the one at Providence, also got a shot in the arm from interest in health careers. Enrollment, which had dipped to 283 in 2000-2001, stands at 355 now, including a freshman class of 113, the largest in years, said Sister Fay Hagen, St. Mary's principal. She launched the program with a grant from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the order of nuns that founded the school more than a century ago.

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