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Ozark schools’ health sciences academy draws strong interest

Over 350 students sign up in first semester of CoxHealth-sponsored program at school district building

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A partnership forged earlier this year between Ozark School District and CoxHealth is introducing hundreds of high school students to the health care field.

The school district’s health sciences academy, launched in August at the Ozark Innovation Center, has drawn interest from roughly 350 students who receive hands-on health care experience and training. The academy, one of six that Ozark High School added this school year as a new model of education, is more popular than officials expected, said Principal Jeremy Brownfield.

“Close to a fourth of our student population that has declared an academy has chosen the health sciences route,” he said. “We knew it would be very popular in year one. We anticipated it being a large number, but it exceeded our expectations, which is a good thing.”

The school’s other academies are industrial and engineering technology, human services, natural resources and agriculture, business and computer technology, and arts and communication.

As freshmen, students take an academy exploration class to examine and select an academy for their sophomore year. Students continue through their pathway as sophomores and juniors and refine their interests with course selection. In their senior year, students apply what they’ve learned with a capstone experience, which can include college credit, internships and industry-recognized credentials, according to the district website.

Field exposure
At the roughly $23.2 million Innovation Center, which opened in August, the health sciences academy occupies around 30,000 square feet of the nearly 175,000-square-foot building, said Andy Hedgpeth, vice president of human resources with CoxHealth. The center, located in a former manufacturing plant at 1600 W. Jackson St., serves as an extension of the main high school campus and a new district office location. The facility is designed to provide career- and college-readiness services for students.

CoxHealth is the sponsor of the health sciences academy, which is outfitted with medical equipment and technology to create a state-of-the-art simulation training environment. The space includes a clinic exam room, surgical theater, hospital bed and an ambulance the school district purchased for an undisclosed price from the Christian County Ambulance District, Brownfield said.

“We’ve mocked up a pharmacy. We’ve mocked up a laboratory and a radiography suite,” Hedgpeth said. “It’s real equipment, but obviously the X-rays are not radioactive.”

The introductory training and exposure to a variety of medical areas provides students with knowledge of roles in the surgical suite, such as laboratory technicians and phlebotomists, he said.

“We can create almost a start-to-finish virtual experience of what a patient might experience going through the lifecycle of an episode of care in the hospital,” Hedgpeth said. “You can show students that there’s so much more that goes on in health care beyond a doctor and nurse, which is typically what everybody thinks of.”

Hedgpeth said CoxHealth connected with medical technology company Stryker Corp. (NYSE: SYK) to donate approximately $500,000 worth of used medical equipment, some of which was scheduled to be decommissioned. The health care provider’s total investment is difficult to pinpoint, he said, but added it was “well into the six figures.”

Part of that investment involved hiring and paying for a full-time instructor for the academy.

“The district said in the beginning they were really running into some challenges because as great as the teachers were, they didn’t come from health care,” Hedgpeth said. “As they were vetting people from our industry, they did not necessarily want to move to a teacher contract.”

CoxHealth agreed to take the lead in the employee search. Joanna Throckmorton, an Ozark resident and physical therapist with CoxHealth, was hired for the role.

“We’ll hire the instructor and you guys work to teach the instructor how to teach well, and they’ll bring their health care knowledge,” Hedgpeth said regarding the plan with the school district. “To make sure they’re relevant and stay relevant, every summer when school is out, we’ll bring them back to the health system and put them through this intensive ongoing rotation through all the areas they’re teaching kids about so they can stay up to speed.”

Outside the box
Brownfield said within the health sciences academy, there are pathways for pre-professional health care, nursing and clinical health and exercise science.

“With what we’re doing with Cox, the year-one course that students are getting exposed to in that particular area is a medical occupations course,” he said. “It’s kind of a general overview of some of the different health occupations that are out there.

“We also use Project Lead the Way, which is an innovative, project-based learning program that incorporates science, technology, engineering and math,” he said, noting the biomedical science course the district offers serves as a gatekeeper to all three of the pathways.

For the school district and CoxHealth, Brownfield said it was important to think outside the box when teaching health care to students.

“Traditionally, for students that would want to go into health care, a (certified nurse assistant) program might be their gateway,” he said. “We just felt in talking with Cox and what we know about students and what they want to take, there’s so much more to the medical field in general than just the level of patient care a student might see in a CNA program. We wanted them to really be able to explore all areas of health care, not just within our health sciences.”

The high school is incorporating its ongoing dual-credit medical terminology course, which it offers in partnership with Ozarks Technical Community College, as part of the academy’s year-two experience, Brownfield said. Conversations with other educational institutions also are in progress on how to embed college credit into the academy courses as they continue to develop, he said.

Hedgpeth said CoxHealth’s involvement in the academy isn’t intended to funnel future prospective workers only to the health system that employs over 12,000 people. Still, there is a desire for the academy to shine a light on the industry’s local job possibilities, regardless of where that takes students, he said.

“I would love to see them all come to CoxHealth, but in general it’s very good for our community to have smart people that take good-paying jobs and stay in our community,” he said. “We want to make sure they know right away there’s lots of jobs available to them.”


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