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Unique high school program helps fill demand for nurses

Students at Alexandria Area High School prepare to practice personal care skills on each other. This could include teeth brushing, modified bed bath, and foot care. (Contributed)1 / 4
Nora Merk performs the passive range of motion skills on Danielle Bous during a nursing assistant class at Alexandria Area High School. (Contributed)2 / 4
Hanah Hansen (left), a certified nursing assistant at Ecumen Bethany Community in Alexandria, chats with Evelyn LeSuer while checking her vital signs. (Lowell Anderson | Echo Press)3 / 4
Simon4 / 4

Alexandria Area High School is helping fill a pressing need in the area through a program that allows students to become certified nursing assistants.

The program was born with the construction of the new Alexandria high school, which opened in 2014, that coincided with a shift to an academy focus that allows students to take classes that will start them down a career path.

One of the academies focuses on careers in health care. Meg Simon, a teacher in the Health Sciences and Human Services academy, said that when the curriculum was being formulated, helping students achieve certifications was set as a goal.

"The CNA class really came out of that," Simon said.

She said Alexandria is one of only two schools in the state with such a program.

A classroom at the high school was outfitted with patient beds and other equipment donated by Knute Nelson. Mannequins that serve as patients also were purchased and sometimes students stand in as patients.

The students do some of the course work at the high school, with instructors coming in from Alexandria Technical and Community College, with some lab work done at the college. Students will be doing clinicals at Knute Nelson this month. After that, students must still pass a standard test for their certification.

"We have a very good success rate," said Simon.

Hanah Hansen went through the class last year as a senior, has been working at Ecumen Bethany Community since April and has found it very rewarding.

"You really get to know who you're taking care of," she said.

She said the residents appreciate the attention they get, such as the time she spent at Christmas painting a woman's nails. "It just makes her whole holiday," she said.

Knute Nelson and Ecumen Bethany provide financial support for the program so students can get the college credit and certification at no cost to them.

The program is in its second year.

While high school students have previously been able to get their nursing assistant certification, it meant taking classes in the evening at the college and paying for the course and testing themselves.

Integrating the class into the school day has allowed students involved in after-school activities or who are already working part-time jobs to become a CNA.

Data from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development says the median wage for a nursing assistant in the state is $28,125 per year or about $13.50 per hour.

"It pays a lot better than most part-time jobs," Simon said.

In addition to providing three college credits, it gives students looking to major in a health science field a head start and the practical experience colleges are looking for when considering graduate student applications.

It also can help students find out early on if the health care field is right for them, especially when doing clinicals, providing personal care to real people, Hansen said.

"There were some kids in the class that didn't realize what being a CNA was all about," Hansen said. "They were like 'holy buckets, I am not ready for this at all.'"

But that has been the exception. Far more students have found out they can.

Hansen recommended the class to student planning to work in health care, even if they don't want to work as a CNA.

She said the class covers topics like how Medicare and Medicaid work and other aspects of the health care system. "It really opens your eyes," she said.

Angie Irmen, chief operating officer at Knute Nelson, said the program is a great way to introduce students to the nursing field and the workplace.

"We will take as many as we can; they're great workers," Irmen said. "We hope they come back as an RN someday."