New laboratory school expected to create pipeline of healthcare professionals

Emory & Henry College President Dr. John W. Wells, Dr. Michael Puglisi (Emory & Henry), Dr. Lou Fincher (Emory & Henry),  Dr. Laurie Anne Ferguson (Emory & Henry), David Matlock (Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center), Dr. Dennis Carter (Smyth County), Dr. Wesley Poole (Wythe County) Dr. Brian C. Ratliff (Washington County), Dr. Keith Perrigan (Bristol Virginia) Dr. Mike Robinson (A.Linwood Holton Governor’s School), Dr. Adam Hutchison, President Virginia Highlands Community College, Dr. Stacy Thomas (Virginia Highlands Community College), and  Dr. Scott Jefferies (Wytheville Community College).

Emory & Henry College and its partners were recently awarded the College Partnership Laboratory School Planning Grant for $200,000 from the Virginia Department of Education.

The proposed Southwest Virginia Healthcare Excellence Academy Laboratory School (SWVA-HEALS) program will be designed to establish a high school career academy for 10th- through 12th-graders to serve as a “pipeline” for preparing future healthcare professionals to meet the workforce shortages in Southwest Virginia. The announcement was made on the campus of Emory & Henry with invited guests and partners.

“The college is excited to take the lead in this collaborative partnership to build a sustainable pipeline of students who will support and impact the future health of this region,” said Dr. Lou Fincher, Senior Vice President and Dean, School of Health Sciences at Emory & Henry College. “Our goal is to increase the number of high school graduates from Southwest Virginia who choose to pursue healthcare careers and practice in Southwest Virginia.”

The SWVA-HEALS program is a collaborative partnership between the School of Health Sciences and School of Nursing from Emory & Henry College, the public school divisions of Smyth County,  Wythe County, Washington County, and the City of Bristol, the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center, the A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School, Virginia Highlands Community  College and Wytheville Community College. It is expected to launch during the 2023-2024 academic year. 

The program plans to target 10th, 11th, and 12th grade  students from the rural school divisions of Smyth County, Wythe  County, Washington County, and the City of Bristol who have an interest in pursuing a career in healthcare. It will include a special emphasis on increasing high school students’ awareness of, interest in, and preparation for pursuing the education pathways that lead to careers in the nursing and behavioral health professions. 

The first year of the SWVA-HEALS program (i.e., 10th grade) will focus on career exploration across the many disciplines of healthcare professions, including nursing and mental health, and will include active engagement through early career forums and shadowing opportunities. Students will develop an individualized college and career plan during the first half of their 11th grade year and work closely with faculty and mentors to implement and complete their plan prior to graduation. Evidence-based teaching and learning strategies will be integrated across the SWVA-HEALS curriculum including an emphasis on active, engaged learning. (e.g. clinical simulation, team-based  projects, case-based modules). 

Studies have found that students who grow up in a rural region and earn their healthcare degree in that region are more likely to live and practice in that region. The proposed laboratory school is designed to provide a “grow our own” approach to addressing the workforce shortages in this rural region. While this high school “pipeline” approach will not provide an immediate impact on the healthcare areas that require baccalaureate and graduate degrees for entry into the professions, it will establish a high quality, sustained pathway for training future healthcare professionals. Investment in the establishment of this “pipeline” will pay dividends well into the future.

“We are thrilled the planning grant for the Southwest Virginia Healthcare Excellence Academy Laboratory School has been funded. The synergy created by the educational entities working together in developing the lab school will create amazing opportunities for area students interested in healthcare,” said Dr. Dennis Carter, Superintendent of Smyth County Schools.  “The clinical experiences provided by the Emory & Henry Schools of Health Sciences and Nursing will be instrumental as students move toward careers in medical or behavioral health professions.”

Emory & Henry will offer turnkey facilities that are state of the art for teaching, clinical labs, training and patient exam rooms in an interprofessional and interdisciplinary environment. The partners will promote access and sustainability through the K-12 system in the region, private sector, industry and other higher ed connections. The healthcare career focused coursework in the proposed SWVA-HEALS program will be taught by an interdisciplinary team of faculty and will be designed to help students connect their “academic learning to real-world healthcare applications.” 

Three locations will be used for the new SWVA-HEALS program – in Marion at the E&H Health Sciences Campus and the Henderson School, and in Abingdon at the Southwest Virginia Higher Ed Center. All three locations will offer convenience for high school students for safe travel and time savings with commuting.  The SWVA-HEALS program will also incorporate several dual credit courses and potential certificates options. As a result, this experiential learning model will allow students to graduate high school with college credits, career-related experiences, and real-world career preparation.

“The Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center is excited to embark on this opportunity with Emory & Henry College and the other partners,” said David Matlock, Agency Head of the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon. “We are especially looking forward to growing the pipeline of high school students interested in healthcare professions to meet the demands of our region.”

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