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OPINION | LASHANNON SPENCER: A bold plan

Start nurses’ training in high school by LASHANNON SPENCER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | March 12, 2021 at 3:40 a.m.

Driving down Markham Street in Little Rock a few days ago, I noticed a sign hanging from a nursing home, announcing "Now Hiring" nurses. The sign served as a reminder of how the pandemic has negatively impacted the health-care work force.

If such signs are posted in urban areas, imagine the plight rural communities face. I immediately called friends in Mississippi and California, and each of us commiserated about nursing shortages. My friends indicated that licensed practical nurses (LPNs) were being recruited to return to hospital settings because of a shortage of registered nurses (RNs).

We clearly must develop innovative solutions to address the growing work-force shortage occurring within the health-care sector. Why not start with thinking about the individuals who will compose the future work force?

Let's build a pipeline that offers high school students classes and labs in the nursing field that will result in an LPN certificate after graduating from high school. This would call for bold changes with legislation, education curriculum frameworks, and health-care regulations, but it's worth the effort. We must be strategic.

An LPN provides basic medical care under the direction of registered nurses and doctors. These services include checking blood pressure, reporting patient status and concerns to the registered nurses and doctors, providing comfort to patients such as bathing or dressing, and listening to the patients' concerns. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses (LPNs and LVNs) is projected to grow 9 percent from 2019 to 2029.

Over the last few years, many school districts across Arkansas have experienced the value of partnering with companies to allow students to shadow staff members, creating apprenticeships and internship programs, and providing academic credit for students enrolled in career technical education courses. These models that link learning to post-secondary pathways and possible career opportunities have proven to be very successful. They also help teach soft skills, such as leadership.

A high school LPN program would emphasize and drive home to students at a young age the importance of providing quality, compassionate care to those in need.

Such LPN programs would require, of course, proper coordination with school counselors to ensure other academic requirements are met. For example, a student could start with a nursing fundamentals course in the ninth grade and take a sequence of classes concluding with a nursing practicum, or internship, in the 12th grade.

Medical clinicians would serve as instructors. They would teach students the importance of showing up on time for work, keeping to a schedule, completing a list of tasks, and being accountable, stressing the importance of providing quality patient satisfaction.

This would allow many students to emerge from high school after successfully passing the exam to receive their LPN certification. They would have the opportunity to make a living wage and earn real-world work experience while participating in a certification program. Research shows that working in high school, and then later in college, leads to higher wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for an LPN was $47,480, which is $22.83 per hour. Obtaining an LPN certification prepares students to enter high-paying, in-demand, health-care careers. Such programs also demonstrate that students have acquired the required knowledge and can pass an aligned test.

Clinicians can be very instrumental in guiding students as they participate in building a work-force pipeline to improve their community's health. They can serve as mentors and match a student with a specialist based upon shared interest in the medical field. If this happens in an underserved, underprivileged community, that community has struck gold. This type of forward thinking can help influence the future pipeline's reasoning about health-care disparities by developing and incorporating within the foundational curriculum the teaching about systemic societal barriers and social determinants of health issues.

The type of necessary licensure changes would need to be discussed among the medical community, and many conversations would be needed with educators, especially K-12 administrators. Health-care and education leaders must join together for this effort to be successful.

There are currently 26 approved LPN programs in Arkansas offered at community colleges, technical centers, and private career schools, but these programs require a high school diploma for acceptance into a program. Incorporating LPN-oriented curriculum in high school is one solution for starting students on a path toward health care.

We could create medical/biological magnet schools in selected medically underserved communities. We could start with one magnet school as a test site, which would include the LPN curriculum to gauge interest and effectiveness for possible expansion to other schools.

Again, it would be a radical shift calling for cooperation from multiple sectors of communities, but it's worth doing. We must act deliberately and be bold to plan for the future.


LaShannon Spencer is CEO of Community Health Centers of Arkansas.

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