An Educator’s View: The Next Generation of Health Care Heroes Is Out There. We Must Begin Shaping Them, and High School Is the Place to Start

COVID-19 continues to be a pervasive virus that has impacted us all. Over the last several months, medical professionals and communities have had to dramatically change how they operate in order to help families receive the critical care they need. Now, as we enter the fall and winter months, and infection rates continue to rise, there are new fears about additional waves and what further devastation they could bring — and whether we’ll have enough health care professionals to manage them.

Even pre-virus, America suffered from a severe shortage of health care workers. A recent report projected that the U.S. will need to hire 2.3 million new health care workers by 2025 in order to adequately take care of its aging population — and that was pre-pandemic. This sobering statistic exposes how big the gap is in what is needed to provide basic health care, let alone crisis health care.

Despite all these challenges, the next generation of health care heroes is out there and already thinking about how to contribute to the profession and make their mark on the world they want to see. Now is the time to begin shaping them, and high school is the place to start.

NAF, formerly known as the National Academy Foundation, a national nonprofit bringing together education, business and community leaders to transform the high school experience, is helping to build this essential pipeline of health care workers. Founded more than 40 years ago by global philanthropist and financier, Sanford I. (Sandy) Weill, former chairman of Citigroup, NAF began with one Academy of Finance in New York City and grew to include additional career themes in the fastest-growing industries of health sciences, hospitality and tourism, information technology and engineering. Academies can be thought of as schools within schools or small learning communities, with many in large, predominantly urban public high schools.

NAF promotes open enrollment for its academies in order to maximize every student’s chance at a successful future. Enrolled young people have access to an industry-vetted curriculum that is specific to their academy’s career theme. During the 2019-20 school year, over 110,000 students attended 620 NAF academies across 34 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U/S/ Virgin Islands. Eighty-eight percent identify as female and/or Black/Latino, and 67 percent come from underserved communities.

Business leaders involved in NAF academies play a pivotal role in developing both students’ workforce-ready skills, such as critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communication, and their understanding of particular careers. Employers need to make connections at the high school level, when their future workforce is initially exploring college and career options and making key decisions about the future. By offering work-based learning opportunities to students, businesses can witness the innovativeness that students possess from day one and develop the skills that match their particular needs, while creating diverse talent pipelines that these industries so urgently need.

Work-based learning brings the classroom to businesses and businesses to the classroom and provides students with well-rounded skill sets. Examples include mock interviews, worksite tours, opportunities for students to shadow practicing professionals and the culminating experience – the paid internship.

Right now, there are 86 NAF Academies of Health Sciences in America, and since the academy’s inception, NAF has armed nearly 40,000 health care professionals with the knowledge and access to opportunity to reach their full potential. Over the years, students have interned with prestigious research institutes, doctors’ offices, medical clinics and hospitals, and have learned about nursing and counseling services in local universities. But we still have much more work to do. It is critical to motivate more students to explore careers in health sciences and begin building the pipeline early, in order to not fall behind in fulfilling a demand that could mean the difference between life and death.

We see the COVID-19 crisis as our “mayday” call to action and know that solutions go beyond the immediate need to relieve the exhausted health care workers currently on the front line of the battle. When students are exposed to real-world scenarios and can hear from professionals in their high school classrooms, they will gain an understanding of the urgent needs of America’s health care system and how they can participate as members of a future workforce.

For example, my Academy of Health Sciences students at Dinuba High School are currently working on their senior projects and are teaching virtual lessons on educating their community about a disease and its prevention — with COVID-19 top of mind. Through their research about in-depth aspects of the diseases and charting how many people have been affected in our city, county, state and nation, our young people are tasked with presenting their findings around best medical practices, such as hand washing, to their classmates and our industry partners, who will give applicable feedback. Through this project, they are able to connect their classroom knowledge to a global health crisis and be proactive with their education while helping others.

If the number of students who have entry to health careers in high school can increase, there can be more graduates who are part of the solution to the health care system’s most lingering and acute issue: a robust pipeline of talent.

To achieve this and eliminate barriers, it is important for our K-12 education system to have the support of legislation for promoting public-private partnerships that enable industry leaders to participate in career-focused education and pledge their commitment to the next generation. This includes rigorous academics with industry-vetted curriculum, mentoring from working professionals and government incentives for businesses to hire high school students for internships or to provide other career preparation experiences.

The heroes who are fighting this pandemic deserve our thanks. But this will not be the last battle. With quality training and education through organizations focused on workforce development, such as NAF, we can expand and equip our nation’s future doctors, nurses, technicians and more. They need our backing and investment to become America’s health care army of tomorrow.

Tonya Pennebaker is an NAF health sciences educator at Dinuba High School in Dinuba, California.

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