Nursing News

Nursing Charter School Opens in Rhode Island

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By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

September 28, 2011 - Considered the first of its kind in the nation, the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School opened in Providence this fall, creating an opportunity for students interested in nursing careers to begin taking their college general education requirements while still attending a public high school.

“This is an outstanding education–workforce development strategy,” said Mike Paruta, director of workforce development at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence and chair of the school’s board of trustees. “It helps in building a new workforce, making it a more diverse workforce in the future and preparing young people for the new health care model. Nursing will lead the transformation of health care.”

Rhode Island will need 4,000 more nurses by 2018, said Donna M. Policastro, RNP, executive director of the Rhode Island State Nurses Association and Rhode Island Institute for Nursing and founder of the school.

The school blends two fairly new educational models: the charter school, which is a privately operated public school with more flexibility to innovate; and the middle college concept, in which students attend for a 13th year, which serves as a bridge to college.

“By capturing the freshman year of college in a middle-college high-school model, it helps ensure a little more maturity, and we hold their hand and teach them how to do this,” Paruta said. “It’s a nice innovation to ensure college success.”

Even though students often have the academic skills to succeed in college after 12 years of education, they frequently experience difficulty making the cultural shift to independent habits and self-motivation required in college, said Robert Pilkington, Ed.D., superintendent of the school.

“The Rhode Island State Nurses Association identified the need to provide some support for students, especially students of color going from high school to college,” Pilkington said. “Alchemy is the best word to describe the partnership.”

Policastro added that the journey began about two years ago, after nursing schools voiced concern that many applicants lacked the math, science and communication skills needed to succeed. She approached Pilkington, who was experienced in charter schools and middle colleges and raised private donations to get the school off the ground.

“It was a lesson in coalition building and partnership,” Policastro said.

While many young people are initially interested in nursing, Paruta said, they have difficulty passing the high-level curriculum.

“If we grab them before that, increase their skill sets and raise their expectations, they will fly through college,” Paruta said. From there they can pursue graduate-level nursing degrees, which he expects will be in great demand in the years ahead.

About 130 10th- and 11th-grade students from throughout the state have enrolled at the Nurses Middle College. Many come from urban areas. Seven are males.

Rhode Island Nursing Charter School
Student Nicole Cardillo addresses school and elected officials gathered to celebrate the opening of the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School.

Nicole Cardillo was the first person to apply to the Nurses Middle College, after hearing about it on the radio.

“I immediately knew that I wanted to go there,” Cardillo said. “I desperately want to be a nurse and know that college will be hard and expensive. This school will help me to become used to college expectations and help financially because of the transition into college as a sophomore and not a freshman. I love the nursing theme in the classes and just know that this is a great opportunity for me.”

A nursing theme runs through the curriculum. For instance, the math classes talk about milliliters and figuring out doses. The program includes a history of nursing. The academic dean is a nurse.

College-level courses earn the students both high school and college credit, with a goal of completing their general education requirements, 28-32 credits, before gaining entrance to a two- or four-year school of nursing.

“We aim to reduce a student’s college costs by one quarter,” Pilkinton said.

Students will then begin their college career as a sophomore. The Nurses Middle College has an articulation agreement with the Community College of Rhode Island, which has reciprocal agreements with Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, all of which have nursing programs.

In addition to earning college credit, the school aims to indoctrinate the students in the habits of a college student, so the school has a college environment, housed at Roger Williams University. Students obtain textbooks at a bookstore. Teachers move among classrooms.

“This has all of the ingredients that the public and educators are looking for in what makes a successful new school,” Pilkington said.

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