Thirty-six aspiring nurses at the Burton Center for Arts and Technology are learning what is and isn’t normal.

“When assisting a patient, they have to know what is normal, and what to report,” said instructor Karen Zimmerman, a board-certified nurse and a human resources consultant for Carilion Clinic.

In introduction to nursing, a new course at Roanoke County Public Schools’ Burton Center, juniors and seniors are studying how to identify changes in a patient’s condition as well as health care fundamentals.

They are split into two classes to study how to check vital signs, identify microbes and diseases, and treat the sick and elderly.

Carilion, the school division and Medical Facilities of America collaborated to offer the program with the hope of igniting interest in health care as a career. Health care company Carilion Clinic is the largest private sector employer in the Roanoke region, while MFA is a Roanoke County-based company that operates more than 40 nursing and rehabilitation centers.

Labor market trends show nursing has a high percentage of job growth in the region, said Jason Suhr, Roanoke County’s career and technical education director.

Local health care providers could benefit from the program in the long run, and in the near future. This spring, students with at least a B average and a satisfactory grade on all clinical skills will qualify to take the certified nursing assistant exam through the Virginia Board of Nursing. If they pass, they can seek employment as nursing assistants or aides before college, even while in high school.

Salem Health and Rehabilitation Center — where the students perform clinical work — is one of the local employers interested in hiring students who gain the certification, Zimmerman said. Students could make $12 to $15 an hour working flexible schedules, she said.

Earning extra money on a path toward a career in health care before college is especially beneficial for some students, like senior Mallory Thompson.

“It prepares us big time. And it’ll keep me out of fast food,” said Thompson, 17, who said she works part time at a Subway restaurant.

Thompson said she actually wants to become a physical therapist rather than a nurse. But the experience she’s gaining in working with patients is giving her a “head start” in understanding how to properly care for a person in need of healing.

“And it’s a really good head start for those of us who want to become LPNs [licensed practical nurses] or RNs [registered nurses],” said Thompson, who plans to attend Bridgewater College next fall.

When the students aren’t taking quizzes on medical terminology and anatomy, they’re wearing scrubs and gaining hands-on experience. Hospital beds, mannequins and wheelchairs are used frequently in the classroom. Students practice using a gait transfer belt by taking turns lifting one another from a hospital bed into a wheelchair.

During clinical study at the rehabilitation center, they see professionals provide physical and emotional support to patients, and learn what to say and how to say it.

Junior Hannah Logan, 17, said she and her classmates feel they’re “working toward a real career” in the introductory nursing class.

“Some of us are going to have our CNA license before we even graduate, and we know that a lot of people don’t get that opportunity,” she said.

Senior Amanda Surface, 19, said she’s hoping to gain her certification and find work this summer before enrolling in college courses.

The program aligns with advanced nursing courses at the post-secondary level, and eligible students can earn college credit through dual enrollment as part of the Claude Moore Health Professions Academy.

Nursing courses at the Burton Center are not entirely new for Roanoke County. But it’s been about 20 years since any were offered.

Ending in the late ’90s, a nurses aide program lasted about five years before encountering staffing issues and low enrollment. Before that, a licensed practical nursing program was offered until 1996; it might have also ended due to staff funding issues, said schools spokesman Chuck Lionberger.

School administrators are confident the new nursing program will be viable for the long term based on labor workforce investment area data. A second-year course is already in development, Zimmerman said. “We’re leaning toward including some additional certification opportunities,” she said.

New coursework could allow students to attempt certification exams for electrocardiogram and phlebotomy technicians. Zimmerman said adding diabetes management training is also under consideration.

The Burton Center also offers a health care program for students interested in a career as emergency medical technicians.

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