Future nursing students at the Emory & Henry School of Nursing campus in Marion practice leg compression techniques in a state of the art lab. A new lab school will provide training and exposure to health care careers to high school students. Courtesy of Emory & Henry College.

With approval of a $200,000 planning grant by the Virginia Department of Education, those working to establish a lab school along the Interstate 81 corridor in Southwest Virginia are forging ahead with plans to open this fall.

If it receives final approval later this year, the Southwest Virginia Healthcare Excellence Academy Laboratory School – or SWVA-HEALS – will focus on health care careers and will be open to students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. The school will serve as a “pipeline” for preparing future health care professionals to meet the workforce shortages in Southwest Virginia.

Leaders of the effort are holding a news conference at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Emory & Henry College to announce approval of the planning grant and details of the school.

The project involves a number of partners extending from Bristol to Wytheville, including Emory & Henry College Schools of Health Sciences and Nursing, the lead institution; the public school divisions of Bristol, Washington, Smyth and Wythe counties; the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center; the A. Linwood Holton Governor’s School; and Virginia Highlands and Wytheville community colleges.

“I’m really excited about all the partners we’ve brought together, and I think that’s one of the keys to the success of this going forward,” said Lou Fincher, senior vice president and dean of the School of Health Sciences at E&H. “It’s just a wide range of education partners coming together to really look at how do we start to increase the number of high school students graduating in Southwest Virginia that are going to pursue a career in health care and stay in this region and practice health care.”

Lab schools are partnerships between institutions of higher learning and local school divisions, and they must focus on an in-demand field – like health care, in Southwest Virginia. Supported by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, the initiative was awarded $100 million last year by the General Assembly.

Emory & Henry health sciences students attend a lab at the School of Health Sciences campus in Marion to get hands-on experiences taking blood pressure and other routine medical procedures. Courtesy of Emory & Henry.

Smyth County Public Schools Superintendent Dennis Carter said in working together, the educational entities create a “synergy” that will result in “amazing opportunities for area students interested in health care.”

The application for the planning grant was submitted just before Christmas and the approval came Feb. 2. In the application, Fincher noted the well-documented national health care workforce shortages, which she said are even greater in the rural Appalachian region of Southwest Virginia, particularly in the fields of nursing and behavioral health.

“For this reason, the SWVA-HEALS program 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,” she wrote in the application.

Those working on the lab school were “thrilled” with approval of the planning grant, which supports further planning and the initial launch of the school, Fincher said. Committees will be formed and more planning, especially for the curriculum, will be underway this spring.

The full lab school application will be submitted this summer, she added.

Classes will be taught at three sites: the E&H Health Sciences Campus and the Henderson School, both in Marion, and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.

The three locations are designed to be convenient for high school students, with Abingdon and Washington County students able to use the Higher Education Center and the Smyth and Wythe students mostly using the facilities in Marion.

The SWVA-HEALS program will also incorporate several dual-credit courses and potential certificate options. As a result, the experiential learning model will allow students to graduate high school with college credits, career-related experiences and real-world career preparation.

Students will be admitted this fall, when the focus will be on orientation. In January, classes will start, according to Fincher.

The first year will start with just the 10th grade, with another grade added the second year and the third the next year. As it is now planned, each grade level will have 32 students for a total of 96. Carter said each of the four school divisions involved will choose eight students for each of the three grade levels.

But that number may increase. Fincher said the state Department of Education suggested more students be involved because the need for health care workers is so dire in this area.

Students will be chosen through a lottery system, and the details are still being worked out. Prerequisites and grade point average requirements will be established during the planning phase.

“All students that meet the requirements will have an equal opportunity to be accepted into the school,” Fincher said.

Students at the Emory & Henry School of Health Sciences practice interdisciplinary training, sharing labs between occupational therapy, physical therapy, physician assistant and nursing programs. Courtesy of Emory & Henry.

She said students who go through the lab school will learn about the wide variety of health care professions they can pursue and the pathways to get there. They will also have an “experiential learning opportunity” that will allow them to shadow people in those jobs, learn introductory health care skills that can be used across health care disciplines and put together a career-readiness plan, she said.

SWVA-HEALS students will also learn about the rural health care issues this area faces, such as diabetes and a high smoking rate, so they can better understand “how hard it is to recruit health care professionals to work in those rural areas so they actually can gain an appreciation for how important it is that we grow our own, that will instill in them that desire to want to make a difference in this region as a health care provider,” Fincher said.

Studies have found that students who grow up in a rural area and earn a health care degree in that region are more likely to live and practice there, Fincher said. While there won’t be an immediate impact, the school will establish a pathway for training future health care professionals that will pay dividends in the future, she added.

Across the state, two schools, James Madison University in Harrisonburg and Southside Virginia Community College in Alberta, have submitted lab school applications that are pending.

In addition to E&H, nine other planning grants have been approved for Mountain Gateway Community College in Clifton Forge; the University of Lynchburg; the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond Teacher Residency Program; Old Dominion University in Norfolk; Germanna Community College in Locust Grove; the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg; Eastern Shore Community College in Melfa; and George Mason University in Fairfax.

Four schools have submitted applications for planning grants: Virginia State University, Hampton University, Norfolk State University and Old Dominion University in Chesapeake.

New College Institute in Martinsville submitted an application for a planning grant, but it was turned down.

Susan Cameron is a reporter for Cardinal News. She has been a newspaper journalist in Southwest Virginia...