Training high school and community college students to be nurses and other health workers

There are too few nurses and other health workers in California now, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. What is in progress to recruit more high school and community college students into training programs?

Leticia Bucio is the principal of the Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School (AABHPHS) in the Sacramento City Unified School District. Her school’s curriculum includes chemistry, English, math and physics.

“Half of our graduating senior class finished classes to begin nursing programs at the community college level,” she says.

Her school is open to all students in the Sacramento Region in or out of the SCUSD. AABHPHS had a 2022-2023 enrollment of 250 students, up from 200 in 2021-2022, a 25 percent increase, according to Bucio. She attributes the enrollment spike to the official end of the COVID emergency and students’ subsequent ability return to campus.

“That plus our program expansion,” she says. “We now offer dual enrollment in college and will have a certified nursing assistant program starting in the spring.”

Meanwhile, the San Juan Unified School District (SJUSD) in the Capitol Region offers medical assisting career technical education (CTE) at four high schools: Casa Roble Fundamental High School, Rio Americano High School, El Camino Fundamental High School and Mira Loma High School. Further, there is a dental assisting pathway at Encina Preparatory High School. There are 587 students enrolled in the four medical assisting pathways and the one dental pathway, according to Raj Rai, a SJUSD spokesperson.

“The medical assisting programs at four high schools aligned with the national exams (National Center for Competency Testing NCCT and NHA),” Rai says. “Students’ exam passing rate of 72.7 percent compares with the national rate of 56 percent. The SJUSD also pays for students’ exams. We are also currently working on getting written agreements with several of the major health care providers in our region to have our medical assisting pathway students complete internships while they are still in high school.”

The Medicine Scholars Program is an attempt to reach a group that is talented and is interested, but systemic barriers have kept them from adequate representation in the health professions.”

According to the Chancellor’s Office, the most recent overall California Community Colleges nursing numbers represents data from 2019, given that the finalizing of a report that includes 2020-2022 information is underway. There were 12,960 full-time equivalent nursing students in 2017-18, with 77 of the 116 California community colleges offering nursing programs.

There is also the California Medicine Scholars Program, a newer, state-funded effort to help address growing shortages in healthcare, with a focus on regional diversity and cultural competency. For the annual year of 2022-2023, there is an enrollment of 197 scholars the program. Sixty-two percent of them are first generation college students.

Audrey Dow is senior vice president with the Campaign for College Opportunity. What of the recent Supreme Court decision on affirmative action in higher education and efforts to train more nurses and other health workers? The bottom line is that student outreach and recruitment are unaffected, she says. However, schools are unable to give students a preference in admission based on their race.

Dow welcomes the California Medicine Scholars Program. “I think the program is just the type of innovation we need to address critical health workforce shortage in key areas of the state,” Dow says. “I think the program also supports students who are likely lower income and underrepresented in the health field, move into the medical profession space. Students want to be doctors, they want to be nurses; they want to be mental health providers.”

So what is the problem? “Programs are at capacity and supports for students who are first generation and may not be able to navigate the pathways or have the type of social capital that allows them to get internships that allows them to prepare for a test like the MCAT. The Medicine Scholars Program is an attempt to reach a group that is talented and is interested, but systemic barriers have kept them from adequate representation in the health professions.”

In 2023-24, there is $494 million in the Department of Health Care Access and Information (HCAI) for health care workforce initiatives and activities. A big part of the $494 million is one time spending, implementing multiyear packages of limited-term initiatives from the previous two years, according to Jason Constantouros, a principal fiscal and policy analyst at the LAO.

Further, “the $494 million only reflects workforce development initiatives at HCAI,” he says, excluding “a small number of workforce development initiatives at other departments (such as the Employment Development Department and University of California) that impact health occupations, and regular, ongoing spending at K-12 schools and community colleges to educate students.”

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