Pueblo Community College might not be the first place people think of for nursing and allied health care training.

But the college has been turning out hundreds of health care professionals each year who go on to work in settings throughout southern Colorado.

“We have some really great programs, and we offer a lot of them,” from surgical technology to nursing aides, said Mary Chavez, dean of health and public safety. “People don’t look to community colleges for some of these programs, but a four-year college is not a fit for everybody.”

It’s no secret there is a huge and growing demand for nurses and other medical professionals.

Were it not for limitations of space, faculty and clinical training opportunities, PCC could accept more students who could fill some of those jobs.

Now, through an innovative partnership with St. Mary-Corwin Medical Center and Centura Health, PCC will be able to expand opportunities for students who want to pursue health care careers.

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The partners are creating the Teaching and Learning Center for health care careers, to be based in the medical center’s mostly unused east tower. Over the next 18 months, the tower will be renovated to house PCC’s entire range of nursing and allied health care services programs.

The college will be able to accept more students, who will help fill the need for health care professionals at St. Mary-Corwin and other Centura facilities.

The benefits won’t be limited to the two institutions. The project is expected to help revitalize the neighborhoods surrounding the medical center and contribute to southern Colorado’s economic vitality.

“We will be able to add 225 new health care professionals to the workforce each year — a potential $15 million boost to our economy,” PCC President Patty Erjavec said.

“That’s probably very conservative.”

PCC’s simulation lab and surgical technology program already are housed on the sixth floor of the 450,000-square-foot east tower, which otherwise is virtually vacant.

Plans are still preliminary but call for expansion of the simulation center and learning, anatomy and science labs. Another component is a residence hall for students.

HEALTH CURRICULA

Pueblo Community College’s nursing program had 197 applicants for 120 slots this year, said Paula Kirschner, dean of the College of Nursing.

Clinical practice opportunities that will be facilitated by the new partnership will be key to increasing the number of students the program can accommodate, Kirschner said.

“The associate degree nurse has to have 750 clinical hours,” she said. “We have to make sure we have enough clinical facilities between simulation and real-life stuff. We’re not the only nursing school in town; everyone’s always competing for clinical sites.”

Centura is expanding clinical spots for PCC students not just at St. Mary-Corwin but throughout the system south of Castle Rock.

Besides the associate of nursing degree program, PCC is one of the few community colleges to offer an LPN-to-RN program, a one-year course from which 128 students will graduate in December.

“I also started a paramedic-to-RN program in May,” Kirschner said. “It’s the first in the state at a community college level; the nearest one like ours is 400 miles away in Hutchinson, Kan.”

Ten students were accepted into that program, and eight will graduate in May 2020.

The college also is instituting an RN-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing program in the fall. Kirschner said 26 students have been accepted for the program, which will be taught online by faculty housed at St. Mary-Corwin.

About 70 percent of nursing graduates stay in the Pueblo area, she estimated.

“They may not go into acute care,” Kirschner said, “but they’re here somewhere, whether they’re with the Department of Corrections, home care, hospice [or] palliative care.”

In the next five years, “we will probably increase admissions in every level,” she said. “We will probably be up by another 100 students per academic year.”

Like the nursing programs, the allied health and public safety programs Chavez heads have more applicants than openings. Those programs include surgical technology, radiologic technology, medical assisting, respiratory care and occupational therapist assistant and physical therapist assistant courses.

The majority of the allied health programs lead to associate degrees; some programs, such as phlebotomy technologist, nursing aide, pharmacy technologist and EMT basic, are short-term courses that prepare students for entry-level jobs.

Physical and occupational therapist assistants train for two years to work with therapists and carry out the plans of care that physical and occupational therapists develop.

The expanded space will help make room for more students, but “what we’re doing with a lot of programs is moving the academic, classroom portion of content into online,” Chavez said.

That will enable remote students, especially those from rural areas, to come to campus for skills and simulation labs a few days a month. They can do the remainder of their clinical training in their own areas.

Many students get job offers while they are doing their clinicals.

“We have high employment rates — 95 to 100 percent,” Chavez said.

STUDENT HOUSING

One of the barriers that keeps students from completing their education in health care fields and moving into the workforce is affordable housing, Erjavec said.

“With the real estate available in the east tower, we will be able to launch into some resident life,” she said.

There are plans for two housing units, one for full-time students and one for short-term stays.

“We’re going to start with 45 full-time student suites and 12 short-term suites,” Erjavec said.

The short-term suites will enable students from PCC’s auxiliary campuses in Cañon City, Mancos and Durango to access the labs at the teaching and learning center for a day or a weekend.

Child care is another big barrier.

“We have plans to partner with a child-care facility to offer care not only to our students but also to employees at St. Mary-Corwin and the surrounding area,” Erjavec said. “We’re hoping to also begin to offer some general education courses to St. Mary-Corwin employees that would give them an opportunity for some skills-building,” she said. “People in housekeeping or in laundry or in maintenance that want to pursue a different health care track will be able to do so right there on the campus of St. Mary-Corwin.

“Our vision is that Pueblo Community College positions itself so we can really make a significant dent in the health care shortage,” she said. “Taking a look at the different obstacles and challenges our students have and addressing those … is what we believe will help us to really fill that pipeline.”

Erjavec said the project partners are meeting with an architect and working to develop public-private funding partnerships.

“We’re really looking at this as an economic development project, so we have begun talking to various federal and state agencies as well,” she said.

EVIDENT NEED

Demolition of the tower was being discussed before Erjavec and St. Mary-Corwin CEO Mike Cafasso developed the idea for the teaching and learning center.

“Using our space with a community college focus is a much more affordable option,” Cafasso said. “We will be providing the space for $1 a year.”

The center grew out of a conversation between Erjavec and Cafasso about a year ago.

“We discussed the very evident need for health care professionals,” he said. “Our pipeline is in dramatic need of being filled.”

As part of a strategic plan recently implemented at St. Mary-Corwin, Cafasso asked a group of hospital leaders to reimagine the possibilities for the tower. The concept: It was the perfect environment for teaching.

He engaged leaders from Centura and PCC, along with state and local elected officials, to evaluate the idea of repurposing the east tower.

“Our strategies are coming together in the most cohesive way,” Cafasso said. “It brings us great joy to see this space used for the education of current and future caregivers. … This working relationship not only provides PCC with a space where they can further educate their students, it allows us to support our incredible caregivers with career advancement and workforce development in our own health system.

“We’re just excited to see this thing come to fruition and impact all of southern Colorado.”