Region One ESC and local partners announce $3 million Investing in Innovation grant set to impact nursing career pipeline in Rio Grande Valley

The Region One Education Service Center, together with La Joya ISD, PSJA ISD, South Texas ISD, South Texas College, and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance are recipients of a $3 million Investing in Innovation grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Education. Together, the partners are set to kick off an innovative professional nursing dual enrollment project, Project Health Education and Leadership for ALL (Project HEAL²), which will significantly impact the opportunity for high school students interested in a health professions career.

Through Project HEAL² 50 students from each of the participating school districts will have the opportunity to enroll in first-year college prerequisite courses through STC that will have them on the path to earning an associate degree in nursing as they earn their high school diploma. The Project HEAL² initiative expands on the successful pilot-program by Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, PSJA ISD, and Region One ESC, which just recently graduated eight students from the program.

Region One ESC3“The concept of the Project HEAL² program is the first of its kind in the nation,” said Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez, Region One executive director. “First piloted in the PSJA school district we observed amazing results, the young men and women who participated in the program met the challenge and proved that it could be done. Sometimes to provide these learning and career opportunities for our students, it involves innovative and creative thinking; this is exactly what occurred when our partners met to develop Project HEAL². We are extremely grateful to our partner districts including La Joya ISD, PSJA ISD, and South Texas ISD, South Texas College, and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance for having the courage and enthusiasm to join us in this endeavor.”

The first cohort of Project HEAL² students, consisting of ninth- and 10th-grade students, will have the opportunity to attend the local GEAR UP College for All: Health Science Professions Conference (C4A) which will introduce the students to healthcare careers and provide both students and their parents with a unique insight from those working in the field. Concurrently, in the 11th and 12th grades of the cohort group, each participating school district has been allotted 50 slots for participation by students with more intensive, dual enrollment courses. These students will have access to continued awareness opportunities and will take first year college prerequisite courses through South Texas College, be assigned a nursing mentor, and participate in experiential rotations at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. Additionally, the Project HEAL² students will have access to tutors and mentors to help prepare for the Health Education Systems Incorporated exam, which prepares student nurses to challenge the professional licensure exam.

Upon graduation from high school, Project HEAL² students are eligible to apply for admission to the STC associate degree in nursing for second-year nursing content. Each participating school district is guaranteed 20 slots into the ADN Nursing Program for qualified students. “The nursing career pipeline will be forever changed by Project HEAL2. The student talent in the RGV is exceptional, as well as the dedication of the college’s nursing faculty. Together with committed partners, we will be validating a new national model for the preparation of registered nurses,” said Dr. Shirley Reed, president of STC.

Region One ESC2La Joya ISD and South Texas ISD, two of the three participating school districts, see a substantial benefit from participation in the program for the opportunities that it offers students.

“Project HEAL is a perfect fit for our students,” said Dr. Marla M. Guerra, superintendent at South Texas ISD. “With an evident inclination towards medicine and the health professions, our South Texas High School for Health Professions students are now able to expand upon their medically centered high school coursework to create an even richer experience.”

In addition to providing unique educational and career opportunities, Project HEAL² will also help to address the nursing shortage in the Rio Grande Valley area. Jayson T. Valerio DNP, RN, STC’s interim dean of the Nursing & Allied Health Division, notes the disparity in the nursing field. “In 2016, among the eight regions in the State of Texas, the RN facility vacancy rate was the highest in the Rio Grande Valley and only 14.8 percent are Hispanic/Latino, which does not mirror the population in the state and nationwide,” he said. “Looking at the RN FTE supply and demand for RGV by 2015-2030, our region will need more RNs than anywhere else in the state. Project HEAL² will increase the pipeline of students going into the nursing profession, enhance the academic preparation for Associate Degree in Nursing, increase the rate of high school graduation, and produce more culturally diverse (students) in the nursing workforce.”

“I truly believe that the U.S. Department of Education awarded our grant for multiple reasons. First, it is a proven model but it also aims to impact on multiple levels,” says Dr. Tina Atkins, Region One College to Career Readiness administrator. “Project HEAL² will increase the academic performance and preparation for students interested in the ADN program, it will most definitely impact the high school graduation rate and post-secondary attendance rate, but then it goes beyond the schoolhouse doors. This program will impact our entire community by increasing the culturally diverse nursing workforce pipeline for high school to college. We are extremely proud to be a part of this revolutionary approach to post-secondary and career readiness. We look forward to the next three years of Project HEAL².”