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Health academy fast-tracks professional training

It’s late Monday morning, and teacher Felix Franco’s sophomore geometry class is reviewing applications of mathematics in real-life situations, focusing particularly on healthcare-related settings. That focus befits the academic concentration of Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, a new charter high school in Pilsen.

One student comes forward to explain how measurement errors in the pharmacy can kill a patient. Another talks about how technicians who manipulate machinery used to care for lumbar patients must set the machine at precisely the right angle, or they can reinjure the patient and end up sending them back to surgery.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Geometry class at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy is like perhaps none other. “It’s not only knowing the mathematics, it’s knowing how to apply it to their lives,” says teacher Felix Franco. “We consider them pre-med students.”

“It’s not only knowing the mathematics, it’s knowing how to apply it to their lives,” Franco says. “We consider them pre-med students.”

Opened in September, Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy is run by NCP partner agency Instituto del Progreso Latino and received a New Markets Tax Credit through LISC Chicago to help build the $22 million project, on the site of a former 77,000-square-foot warehouse space, with NCP lead agency The Resurrection Project serving as lead developer.

Aimed to give high school students an early nudge toward higher-wage positions in the healthcare field, the academy—which currently has only freshmen and sophomores, and will eventually have 600 students once it has all four grades—requires seven credits each in math and English, five in science, three in social studies, four in Spanish and 3.5 in health careers.

Uniform-clad students attend for eight hours per day. Juniors and seniors can take college credit courses and earn healthcare internships. The curriculum incorporates experiential learning, interdisciplinary learning, team teaching, development of critical thinking skills and investigative learning. Whenever possible, non-science classes tie in some sort of focus on health, as with Franco’s geometry lesson.

Photo: Ed Finkel

Led by principal Patricia Munoz-Rocha and Instituto president and CEO Juan Salgado, the academy currently has freshmen and sophomores only but will have 600 students in all four grades in a few years.

The building’s centerpiece is the “hospital floor,” which has the look and feel of a hospital facility, from the tile floors in the hallway to the simulation room where students try out their newfound medical knowledge by, for example, practicing CPR on a dummy.

Strolling through that floor, student Jazmine Salgado points out that the school has no bell system. In keeping with Lopez’s comment about “good, practical skills,” Salgado points out proudly that “we need to manage our time, like we’re in college.”

Student Ausar “A.J.” Bradley talks about how “family-oriented” the school is, with open houses for parents, and he appreciates the learning atmosphere. “It’s a different approach,” Bradley says. “All the teachers are here to help you.” He adds excitedly that he’s entered into a citywide science competition in which the winner then travels to Washington, D.C.

At student Karinna Astorga’s previous high school, she felt like “they just followed the state standards” when it came to curriculum. “We focus more on health sciences, and ACTs and how to prepare for college. In junior and senior year, you have choices in your science classes depending on what you want to go into.” She adds that yoga sessions and other offerings oriented toward students’ health “help us focus on stress.”

‘Very Goal-Oriented’
Teachers also notice differences between the academy and other schools. “The health sciences is an excellent focal point for students and teachers,” says Paul Shafer, who teaches chemistry and health careers and previously taught at another Chicago charter school. “It enables us to work consistently toward that goal [of college preparation]. … We have meetings with parents and students about progress toward college-readiness so parents know what an ACT is; so they can set goals.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

Students have come from all over the city, although there’s a definite concentration from Pilsen and Little Village.

English teacher Rhonda Hartwell, who previously taught in two other CPS charters, says the academy is more intentional about college preparation. “It’s not this arbitrary, ‘If you go to college … ’,” she says.  “It’s very goal-oriented. The administration here believes in its teachers and in its students. They’re supportive. Whatever they think we need, they bend over backward.”

Jose Morales, the dean of students, says the academy is trying to ensure they’re ready both for college and—should they choose to pursue it—the medical field. He coordinates the required one-year internship at a hospital or doctor’s office, which has sent 25 students to Rush University Medical Center, 40 to Children’s Memorial Hospital, and recently had five accepted at the Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s department of oncology. Students also have had opportunities to attend lunches with people in the field like dentists, surgeons, and staff from the American Cancer Society to gain additional perspectives, Morales says.

The academy chose this year’s 200 students out of 300 who applied by lottery, he says, adding that he has sent a very strong message to parents and students, at open houses and during orientation, that the school is more rigorous than most both in terms of quantity of time spent each day and quality of curriculum.

“We make sure parents don’t just send their kids here because it’s a smaller, safer school,” he says. “It’s going to be more rigorous. The hours are longer than the neighborhood school. The parents have to support that.”

The academy hopes to draw a larger pool of applicants this year but expects that about 20 students per year will decide “this is not the school for us,” Morales says. “We’re OK with that.”

Hartwell adds quickly that the academy is not trying to warn away students who might have struggled academically—as long as they’re willing to work hard. “We are a public school. We educate everybody,” she says. “We’re not necessarily targeting, ‘We only want these students.’ We have students from every academic and emotional level.”

Morales agrees wholeheartedly. “We have students that come with a fourth-grade reading level,” he says. “That’s OK. We do a lot of remediation.”

Professional Exposure
Principal Patricia Munoz-Rocha says students have come from all over the city, although there’s a definite concentration from Pilsen and Little Village, and she expects applications will climb “as students see the opportunity of starting medical school in high school.”

Photo: Ed Finkel

The top-floor cafeteria at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy lets in plenty of natural light.

Instituto President and CEO Juan Salgado says the academy’s goal isn’t simply enrollment in college but also successful completion and then entrance into the medical profession or another high-wage career. “They’re going to be exposed to the professional environment,” he says. “They’re going to enter college with more clarity. A lot of kids are undecided [when they enter college] because they’ve never known anything except their community, and the books they’ve read and the classes they’ve taken.”

Munoz-Rocha says students at the academy start gaining that clarity as they start spending time in the “hospital floor,” with its physical surroundings and medical equipment. They’re mentored by college students and people in the medical field, which “helps them to see their pathway,” and during their internships they come face-to-face with that pathway when, for example, visiting an anatomy lab.

“They’ve seen cadavers, and other things they will have to be studying as a medical student,” she says. “We are connecting students, while in high school, with post-secondary opportunities. That is innovative. That is unique.”

“Our 9th and 10th graders have more [professional] exposure and opportunities than I did as a junior and senior in college,” Salgado adds.

Even in their various classrooms at the academy, students continuously consider the medical aspects of all their subjects, Munoz-Rocha says. Just as math class touches on the role math plays in the pharmacy, students in Spanish learn medical and scientific terminology, an English teacher makes a writing assignment about yellow fever, and history class covers everything from the discoveries of Jonas Salk to the relative crudity of limb amputation in the Civil War.

Teachers also encourage students to consider medically related societal questions, like why communities like Pilsen and Little Village have lower than average rates of immunization. “We want to ensure students are seeing education as very relevant to the problems of the community,” Munoz-Rocha says. “Health care reform: What does that mean? You can integrate what’s happening outside the school.”

The health careers courses at the academy get into details like medical transcription, biomedical innovation, working as a certified nurse assistant or patient care technician, and billing, coding and insurance.

“This is a growing area where there’s going to be a lot of jobs, Salgado says. “Yet our young people haven’t been accessing these jobs. We need to create systems of parental support, community support for these young people to get into those careers. Given the demographic growth—Latinos are now one out of four schoolchildren—we won’t have the workforce we need to care for the Baby Boom generation” if such efforts aren’t made, he says.

Whole Family
The school welcomes parents and families in part through evening classes in ESL, Spanish reading and writing, GED preparation and the like to help the parents of students enter a nursing career, for example, or find a better manufacturing job, Salgado says. “What we have here is an culture across the entire organization,” he says.

The seriousness of purpose that conveys affects the students in many positive ways, Munoz-Rocha says. “When you talk to them, you can see that they’re focused on the next step, which is college,” she says. “The other thing that is fascinating is that when you start working with the families, they ask, ‘How can I be more effective as a parent?’ ” The answer is a combination of turning off the television, making sure students take the time to do homework, look at their grades and test scores.

“We have parents very much involved in wanting to learn, ‘What is the pathway to success at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy?’ ”

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