Included in the 550 or so students who donned caps and gowns Saturday at Harper College's commencement was a contingent not yet old enough to vote, but qualified to take vital signs, transfer patients and practice infection control.
A total of 18 high-schoolers, 17 from Wheeling High School alone, walked after completing their certified nursing assistant certificate, among the numerous fast-growing dual credit options that Harper offers.
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"By the time they graduate high school, they've got a better than minimum-wage job available to them," said Elizabeth Pagenkopf, coordinator of Harper's CNA program. "If they wanted, they could go out right away and start to work in the health care field."
Though most didn't attend the commencement, about 170 high school students, including two 16-year-olds, earned the CNA credential this year. For many, it could be a precursor to future health care studies.
Among the youngsters was junior Kathleen Castrejon, who enrolled in Wheeling's three-year health sciences career pathway program as a freshman due in part to her longtime interest in human anatomy.
"I have an uncle who's a doctor in Mexico who inspired me," she said. "When I started, I wasn't really sure if I wanted to go into the medical field, but CNA opened my eyes to different opportunities. It confirmed that I want to go into nursing."
The number of high school students in Harper's district enrolled this year in dual credit courses jumped nearly 184 percent from two years ago. The community college and feeder schools have emphasized their partnerships in recent years. In all, 2,382 students took a course ranging from career programs such as CNA to more general subjects.
Through them, students could earn an entire year's worth of college credit -- at no cost to them -- while still in high school.
The trend was reflected in remarks by commencement speaker Jane Oates, U.S. Assistant secretary of employment and training administration. She oversees a national effort to design and deliver training and employment for America's workers.
Registered nurse Jane Weller, a Harper CNA educator working for Northwest Suburban High School District 214, teaches the semester-long course at Wheeling.
Students learn 21 different skills such as oral care and how to properly and safely transport a patient. They practice on computerized mannequins in a lab setting at Wheeling and then head across the street to Lexington Health Care for their clinicals. At the end, they take the Illinois state competency exam.
"The dual credit allows them an excellent opportunity to advance their career choice," Weller said. "It's a great way to get their feet wet."
Junior Jonathan Victor of Arlington Heights said he developed empathy for patients at a young age because of his grandmother's numerous illnesses.
"I got very used to hospital life and noticed how the patients were suffering," Victor said. "I realized I wanted to make a difference."
Classmate Aleksey Razin of Wheeling agreed, and said he's happy that the program gave him experience while saving some college tuition in the process.
"This gives us a leg up on our peers," he said.
More than 3,500 students received degrees or certificates this academic year from Harper.
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