Representatives from Bryan County Schools and St. Joseph’s/Candler announced Friday at Richmond Hill High School they’re partnering on a program to give local high school students a head start on the education required for a career in health care.
St. Joseph’s/Candler President and CEO Paul Hinchey said the program will combine academics with clinical training, while also giving high school students early exposure to opportunities in health care and access to professionals already working in various fields.
The new health sciences certification program is unique and could become a model for other school districts and health care systems, Hinchey said. It will include a 2,000-square foot health sciences lab in the new Richmond Hill High School, which is scheduled to open in 2025.
A similar lab could be built at the new Bryan County Middle High School, which is scheduled to open in 2028.
“We want to marry academics with clinical training, and we want to marry what goes on in the classroom with on hands experience for the student,” Hinchey said, noting the program is aimed at providing “a pipeline for the next generation of health care workers in Georgia.”
With Hyundai’s Metaplant America and its supplier industries joining an already booming port economy and decades of rapid residential growth, Hinchey said the area “will see growth figures none of us are used to. We need a pipeline of health care workers for this next generation, taking care of a population in southeast Georgia that is not even here yet.”
Bryan County Schools Superintendent Dr. Paul Brooksher said St. Joseph’s/Candler has already been a vital partner with the school system, but “they continue to push the envelope to build upon this partnership, making it even better, asking, ‘what can we do next, how can we grow, how can we expand, how can we have a stronger or better impact, not just on the kids but the community?’”
Among some 40 students who participated in a trial run of the program last spring at RHHS is junior Ryley Landers, a dual enrollment student at Georgia Southern who plans on attending either Georgia Tech or Augusta College and then pursuing a career in occupational health.
“Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to go into the medical field,” said Landers, who took Intro to Healthcare, Essentials of Healthcare and Public Health as part of the program. “I enjoyed Public Health the most because I was able to be a part of the shadowing program with St. Joseph’s/Candler.”
Landers said during the shadowing program she was able to choose four specialties to explore over a four week period.
“It was a great opportunity for me to be able to understand what different health care careers look like directly in the field, and I even got to ask the people I was shadowing questions such as what training or education they needed for their position,” she said, adding the only thing she would change is to make the program longer, “because I had so much fun exploring different specialties, and I wish that I could explore even more.”
Richmond Hill High School Principal Bivins Miller thanked St. Joseph’s/Candler and said the program aligns with Georgia Department of Education curriculum. It will help reshape health care education at the high school level, allowing students to leave high school armed with certifications in health care fields, he said, adding “it’s raising the bar.”
Bryan County School Board Chairwoman Amy Murphy also thanked the hospital, adding that the school system’s success is based on partnerships with community stakeholders.
Hinchey said there are more than 200 career paths at St. Joseph’s/Candler, ranging from the obvious such as nursing and biomedical engineering to dieticians, plumbing and maintenance. He said the program is unique because it will be able to provide instruction usually seen at the college level in Georgia, and will have four areas he likened to the legs of a stool.
“No. 1, we’re going to assist the high school with becoming a health science certified program. That’s a big deal. It’s saying while you’re in high school if you go through these classes you will come out with certification in certain areas,” he said. “No. 2, we’re going to develop a speaker series of clinicians on the high school campus. We’re going to have actual practitioners that do these jobs come out to the high school and talk about what they do.”
The third leg of the program is what Hinchey called a career discovery program, which could include up to 120 students a semester.
“Many high school students, when they graduate, because they have limited exposure to life aren’t really clear about where they want to go or if they do go into a college program and are in there a couple of years then decide they don’t really like this,” he said. “This is very much like a co-op program, it’s a career discovery program.”
The fourth aspect of the program is the health science lab, which will give students what Hinchey called an “on hands simulation of what it’s like to do some of the things they’re seeing done in the hospital,” he said. “And the frosting on the cake, we’re integrating academics in the high school with employment with a large employer. We hope we’re going to stimulate them, where they say, ‘Hey I never thought about becoming this, or becoming that. I really liked doing that. That’s what I want to do.’ This is good for the kids, it’s good for the community. We want the kids to train in Georgia, and we want them to work in Georgia.”
The public-private aspect of the partnership means the hospital will help design the lab at RHHS and will provide faculty for the classes, which is expected to start at $85,000 annually and go as high as $225,000 a year, based on program offerings.
St. Joseph’s/Candler has had a presence in Bryan County since 1994 when it opened a facility in Richmond Hill. A second facility opened in Pembroke in 2004, and the hospital in 2021 opened a larger urgent care facility in Richmond Hill and an oncology infusion facility in Pembroke.
St. Joseph’s/Candler opened a Be Health & Well Being office in 2022 in Heartwood, the massive residential development near the Belfast Keller Interchange and new Richmond Hill High School. A larger campus with room for expansion near Heartwood is scheduled to open in 2024, and the hospital is partnering with Hyundai on a clinic for employees at the Metaplant America. It is set to open in 2024, along with a St. Joseph’s/Candler Black Creek campus.
The hospital invested $2.5 million on the LCRP Infusion center in Pembroke and $4 million on its urgent care facility in Richmond Hill. It is spending an estimated $15 million on the Heartwood campus and another $10 million on the campus in Black Creek.
“It’s a good story,” Hinchey said. “It started three decades ago and we’re still going strong with y’all. It’s not like we’re new here.”
He called St. Joseph’s a “unicorn” in terms of hospitals, and noted it has local leadership on its board of trustees, including Richmond Hill businessman Sean Register, a longtime supporter of the hospital and the board’s current vice chairman.
“We’re locally owned, locally governed … we’re a community hospital, and when you have a community hospital it deals with other community entities, like school boards,” Hinchey said. “That’s what makes it unique.”