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Centennial’s Health Academy Creating Bright, Productive Futures

As this example from Centennial High School’s Health Academy vividly illustrates, Pueblo School District 60’s Career and Technical Education program not only positively impacts lives, it has the power to change them.

“We had one girl who came in as a freshman,” noted Bret Orton, who has taught within the academy for 15 years. “She was involved in gangs, had been in fights and actually had felony charges. But by the time she came out of the Health Academy, she was a qualified certified nursing assistant. 

Bret Orton talks with D60 about the success of the Health Academy at Centennial “We did paperwork with her to make sure her past mistakes were understood by the people she went to work for. And she’s been working, wonderfully, for years now.”

A “school within a school,” the Health Academy’s presence in D60 dates back to 1995, when this particular CTE pathway was established in response to the rapidly growing need for health care professionals in Southern Colorado. 

Through partnerships with Pueblo Community College, Colorado State University Pueblo, Parkview Medical Center, St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center, and other community health care agencies, the academy and its three-instructor staff continue to provide students with post-secondary education readiness as well as certifications that allow for immediate employment.

“Career and Technical Education is the building block for students to move toward their career at an early age,” explained Kelly Anaya, coordinator of the academy and an instructor. “We are here to show students all the opportunities that are available and help them find their passion, so that they can move forward and be productive citizens.”

While courses such as Introduction to Health Science and Careers, Medical Terminology, Law and Ethics, Anatomy and Physiology provide the foundation of the academy’s curriculum, students can earn certifications that allow them to enter the health care field while still in high school or upon graduation.

Students are afforded the opportunity to become certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists, pharmacy technicians and emergency medical technicians/basic paramedics while attending Centennial. Additionally, an upstart program will offer certification as a medical assistant.

The Health Academy also serves as a springboard for those who want to pursue an advanced degree, such as in nursing or medicine, with college credits available through the coursework.

“Not only do we train our students and give them that career experience in their desired field, many of those students choose to work in Pueblo,” Ms. Anaya said. “We have nurses at Parkview and St. Mary-Corwin, and certified nursing assistants, emergency medical technicians and pharmacy technicians working throughout the city.” Kelly Anaya talks with D60 about the Health Academy at Centennial

Mr. Orton said at least three Health Academy alumni attended medical school, one at Harvard, with two currently practicing medicine. The third completed two years of medical school before being accepted into The Julliard School, where she studied music therapy and today is working as a music therapist.

“There are an immense number of students that the Health Academy has positively impacted and who have gone on to do great, great things,” he said.

Ms. Anaya characterizes the academy as a “jump-start” into the ever-evolving world of health care.

“The opportunities are wide and varied, so we give them the experiences that they need,” she said. “And after they complete the basic courses, they can veer off into the desired places, like medicine, pharmacy or psychology.”

The academy’s success can be marked by the fact that most students remain in the program for the entire four years of the high school career.

“We usually have 25 to 30 students who stay all four years,” Ms. Anaya explained. “For seniors, we offer a life skills class, which covers all the soft skills our industry partners are telling us are needed. They also get an internship, so we work with our local community to provide our students that opportunity.

“The majority of our internships are through Parkview Medical Center; some are with Centura Health and some will go into the private sector, with a nursing facility or doctor. We’ve even had students do internships with area zoos. So they’re getting some real work experience to see what the job entails.”

To further expand their horizon, students are offered the opportunity to participate in the international student organization HOSA, which promotes career opportunities within the industry while developing leadership skills through state and national competitions.

For Mr. Orton, the ability to provide students with useful, real-world skills is a rewarding aspect of his chosen profession.

“I’ve taught CTE and non-CTE,” he explained.  “Let’s say you’re teaching an Algebra I course: a small portion of students will use that content, and use it well. But a large portion will come back five years from now and complain, ‘I didn’t use that.’

“But with Health Academy skills, I’ve never, ever had anyone complain in that way, because we teach everything as real-world based as we possibly can. We like our skills to be applicable and useful, not just something they saw once and will never use again. The nice thing about CTE is that we have the opportunity to teach things that are practical rather than esoteric: something that can be used immediately out of high school, in any career.”

As a result of the global pandemic, the vital of work of health care professionals has been elevated to the worldwide stage. Ms. Anaya believes that fact will only serve to bolster the essential nature of the industry.

“I absolutely think this pandemic has opened the eyes of the public, as well as our high school students,” she said. “I think those that have a true desire to work in the health care field can now validate their importance, and they can see that their career matters.

“Plus, there’s going to be a guaranteed job out there.”

Jeff Wilkerson, Centennial’s head football coach, teaches anatomy and physiology within the academy. As an instructor, Mr. Wilkerson prefers to focus on hands-on interaction rather than bookwork. Jeff Wilkerson talks with D60 about the Health Academy program at Centennial

“My responsibility is to see kids enjoy learning about the body, and what it’s about, and learn how to live a healthy lifestyle,” he explained. “Even if a student doesn’t plan to enter the health field, I believe everyone should have a general knowledge of how the human body works: to learn more about the cardiovascular system and how it's affected by the diet, as an example.”

As an instructor in the health care field, Mr. Wilkerson believes he may inspire young men to see the industry as a viable career option.

“I don’t see health care as being gender-specific,” he explained. “I think that’s a societal thing. I have a good friend who’s a male nurse. But when you come through the Health Academy, you don’t specifically have to choose nursing. There’s all kinds of different pathways you can take.” 

Although similar health care-focused academies and programs have sprung up across the state, Mr. Orton believes there’s no topping the original.

“All of the other programs, including those at high school and community colleges, are based on our original working frameworks and mission statement,” he said. “Our students come out as excellent examples of what we want our District 60 students to be: hard-working, honest, trustworthy and willing to face strange and unusual fiascos, day after day, and yet still persevere and provide the level of care they know patients deserve.”