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School aims to nurture aspiring nurses

When the Rhode Island Nurses Institute Middle College Charter School officially opened its doors Sept. 19, it became the first charter school in the country to give aspiring nurses the chance to earn both a high school diploma and college credit.

The school, which is publicly funded and has already enrolled 133 students in its inaugural 10th  and 11th grade classes, strives to bridge the academic gap between high school and college so students are prepared after graduation, said Robert Pilkington, the school's superintendant. The school employs professors from the Community College of Rhode Island on a part-time basis and allows the charter school's students to enroll in classes at the college.

Pilkington explained that in his nearly three decades of work in the public school system, he has seen many qualified students drop out of college in their first year because they are not able to make the transition to the academic and social rigors of college. "There is not much difference between a 17-year-old in June and an 18-year-old in September," he said. "But their respective schools have very different levels of expectations."

With that concern in mind, Pilkington began developing ideas for charter schools that could make the jump to college life less daunting. Despite receiving sponsorships from university professors and established organizations like the Urban League of Rhode Island, his first five applications to open schools under this new model were rejected by the state's Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.

The board looks at many things when assessing the merit of a charter school application, including financing details, level of community support and specifics of the instructional plan, said  Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications at the Office of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. The commissioner then meets with her staff and makes recommendations to the board.

Due to the extensive detail required in charter school applications, Krieger said only two to three applications are submitted each year. Drafting an application is "not something you would do on a lark," he added. There are currently 16 charter schools operating in the state.

Roughly a year and a half after submitting the proposal, the nursing charter school received final approval July 7. In the subsequent seven weeks, Pilkington and his team had to coordinate the logistics of a September opening — from buying furniture for the building in downtown Providence to organizing a public lottery to choose students from more than 200 eligible applicants. Following the random lottery, 40 students remained on the wait list. School administrators want to expand to 272 students next year, according to Pilkington.

Kenneth Wong, chair of Brown's Education Department and director of the urban education policy program, called the new school a "welcome development" that will provide a more direct connection from the public school system to employment. Wong explained that charter schools often fill gaps in the existing education system and give students and their families a wider range of options.

But the school's critics contend that, since the state currently has a shortage of nursing jobs, training new nurses is not a sound investment.

Pilkington said employees in the human resources departments at Care New England and Lifespan have explained to him that the current lack of vacancies is caused by an "artificial stalling" of retirements due to economic uncertainty, adding that wholesale retirements within the next two or three years will likely cause a nursing shortage that reaches into the thousands.

A special legislative commission organized in 2009 agreed with that estimate, projecting a state shortage of up to 6,500 nurses by 2020. According to a July 7 Providence Journal article, the average age of a nurse in Rhode Island is 48.

Apart from career considerations, Wong said the school must also ensure that it upholds rigorous academic standards. Teachers and administrators need to be certain that students are still developing the appropriate skills in writing, mathematics and other basic core courses.

According to Pilkington, though, the school will be providing instruction in four major areas — English, history, math and science  — with two teachers assigned to each subject. While the school will not offer advanced nursing courses, learning will often focus on nursing applications. In math, for instance, students may work with equations involving dosages and body weights.

Students will enter the school after completing their freshman or sophomore year at a traditional high school. Depending on whether they attend for three or four years, students may earn from 28 to 32 college credits — enough to graduate with sophomore standing.

Pilkington explained that the school's "blended faculty model" will allow students to benefit from the "best practices" of high school teachers and college faculty, such as having clear syllabi for courses, being able to attend office hours and scheduling parent-teacher meetings. And because college courses will be taught at the school's 150 Washington St. campus, students will not have to commute to receive college credit.

The Board of Regents will reconvene to evaluate the success of the school in five years and determine whether or not to renew its charter, Krieger said.

Wong said that school administrators must now do three things to better their chances for success — reach out to diverse communities that may otherwise not hear about the new program, make sure they are attracting the right teachers and be transparent about their policies and objectives. "The perception of charter schools is that they will try to compete with other public schools. And the competition is definitely there, but they need to continue to keep the community informed so people don't start having misperceptions."

Ultimately, Pilkington hopes the new school will help improve retention rates in associate's and bachelor of science programs in nursing at the state's colleges and universities by creating a seamless "K to 16" education system.

"We're blurring that line," he said. "And it's all in the public dollar."


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