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For decades, students getting their first taste of health sciences careers at Duncan Polytechnical High School have had to practice patient care or CPR in barnlike classrooms that were originally built for middle school shop classes. But that’s about to change.

The Fresno Unified School Board is considering a contract to build a new health sciences career technical education building with classrooms designed to give Duncan students more realistic clinical experiences in the school’s Medical Academy of Science and Health (MASH).

Students who obtain their certificate are ready for the workforce right away, but they also have a leg up on working toward other certifications such as respiratory therapist, ultrasound tech, or radiology, instructor Marina Diaz said.

The proposed building is an example of how career technical opportunities in Fresno as well as around the state are continuing to expand as parents realize their children don’t have to sacrifice their chance for college while gaining exposure to career choices.

The new building is still scheduled to be completed by summer 2022. although a hitch developed Wednesday when the construction contract was pulled from the School Board agenda. A question about the bidding process arose from someone outside the district, and the board asked staff to address it before the vote, district spokeswoman Amy Idsvoog said.

Katch Environmental Inc. of Fresno submitted the lowest bid of $11.1 million for the project and was being recommended for the contract award. Idsvoog did not provide additional information as to the nature of the question about the bidding process but said she expects the contract will be on the June 16 meeting agenda.

The School Board voted earlier to accelerate the Duncan CTE project after winning a $3 million state grant. The remaining project cost will be financed through Measure M, the $325 million bond measure that voters overwhelmingly approved in March 2020.

New Look for Duncan

The new building, which will be visible from Cedar, will contain nine classroom and lab spaces for the nursing and pharmacology programs. The project also will include a new student plaza, accessibility improvements on the campus, and removal of seven portable classroom buildings.

The health sciences program includes the district’s oldest CTE pathway, certified nursing assistant, and its newest, pharmacy technician.

Duncan also is home to the Innovative Design and Applied Technology Academy, where students get hands-on experience with construction, welding, automotive systems in a state-of-the art building that includes a garage and a fleet of big trucks.

The new health sciences CTE building will put MASH students on equal footing with their counterparts across campus, with classrooms designed to replicate hospitals and physical therapy offices.

Artist’s rendering shows where students will learn in separate classroom and clinical settings in the new CTE building. (Fresno Unified)

The goal is not to train the next generation of nurses or physical therapists, but to expose students to career options while giving them the education, tools, and skills to be successful in any vocation, said assistant superintendent Jeremy Ward, who heads the district’s College & Career Readiness department and is Duncan’s former principal.

Most people do not select their career at the age of 16, so CTE programs should not be judged on whether they produce workers for a specific field, but rather on whether students graduate with the skills and self-knowledge of what career they want to follow, he said.

“You have to be able to be promoting the very latest skills, the very latest training, the very latest techniques that requires a certain amount of effort, but it certainly requires a certain amount of resources and support from the community.” — Jeremy Ward, Fresno Unified assistant superintendent and former Duncan principal 

Successful programs are the ones that keep up-to-date with training and equipment, so Fresno Unified depends on advice from its community partners who can help identify trends and workforce needs for the region, Ward said.

“Industry is constantly going to evolve and change no matter what the industry is, which is why in so many ways, working in career technical education is both exciting, but it is very daunting,” he said. “You have to remain relevant. You have to remain on topic. You have to be able to be promoting the very latest skills, the very latest training, the very latest techniques that requires a certain amount of effort, but it certainly requires a certain amount of resources and support from the community.”

Students in CTE programs will graduate with the certification that can help them land a job right out of high school, but also the educational foundation to continue on to college, Ward said. For example, graduates of Duncan’s pharmacy tech pathway who pass the certification test can go right to work in a pharmacy. But those who want to become a pharmacist will need years of college and a doctorate degree, “which is why we have partnerships with locations like California Health Science University,” he said.

(Darius Assemi, the publisher of GV Wire and president of Granville Homes, is a CHSU trustee.)

Success Despite Challenges

Duncan’s certified nursing assistant program is highly successful, with 95% of its graduates passing the certification test, which Ward said is a “tremendously high pass rate for the industry.”

Students who obtain their certificate are ready for the workforce right away, but they also have a leg up on working toward other certifications such as respiratory therapist, ultrasound tech, or radiology, instructor Marina Diaz said.

“A compliment that we get by many industry partners is how prepared our students are, how familiar they are with equipment, how prepared they are to start work, their interview, how they do interviews, how they interact with different staffs,” she said. “They’re very prepared for that real-world experience and entering the workforce.”

That’s despite the fact that the program’s three instructors have to share a large classroom space while teaching multiple groups simultaneously, which at times can be a little chaotic.

“So it’s a lot of chattering, almost like being in a restaurant,” said Jodi Uyeg, CNA program director and theory instructor. “And trying to teach over that, it can be very challenging. So having a separate space where we can focus on theory, it can be nice and quiet so students can focus. And then vice versa, skills has a private area where they can either talk as much as they want, be as loud as they want.”

Students are learning patient care techniques such as how to dress a patient who has an IV needle in their arm. Bags of IV fluids hang from stands next to hospital beds that hold some of the program’s mannequin “patients.”

Duncan High’s certified nursing assistant students practice with mannequins in hospital settings. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

More realistic, hands-on training improves students’ education experience and won’t require them to use their imagination as much, Uyeg said.

The new clinical space will have privacy curtains around beds, a nurse’s station where patient charts are kept, and bathrooms so students can practice helping patients go to bathrooms and then back to their beds, she said.

“We do a lot of pretending, ‘make sure you close your curtains.’ And sometimes that can be challenging because students have so much to go on, to think about, that. If it’s not there in front of them, they might forget all the curtains,” Uyeg said. “So we’re going to have that, which we’re really excited about. And again, they’re just going to get used to knowing what it looks like and the feel of, yeah, I’m going to close that curtain and hopefully get them in that habit a little better being able to touch it and see it and remember. So we’re really excited about it.”

Toby Garza, the rehab therapy instructor, said he was excited to be involved in the new building’s design.

The therapy clinical rooms will look as much as possible like real-world therapy offices, with running water, an ice machine (key for patients after their therapy sessions), and other equipment in specific places, as they would be in a real therapy office, Garza said. Students in the rehab therapy pathway get experience with physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, athletic training, and strength and conditioning, Garza said.

Duncan High rehab therapy students at work. (GV Wire/Jahz Tello)

One of the highlights of the new building will be a permanent space for a $100,000 motion capture system that needs to be set into a wall, Garza said.

“That’s going to be there so we can do a lot of digital looking at joints and muscles and doing those kind of things with the students and not have to worry about tearing it down, putting it back up, and just the headache that comes with that,” he said. “That’s something that is college level. And it’s honestly something that they’re going to see if they go to the college level. So having that here for them is great. And we do a lot of research projects, too, so they can use that to do their research projects as well.”

Rehab therapy students who want to work as physical or occupational therapists will need advanced college degrees, so Duncan’s pathway program is designed to give students the foundation they’ll need to continue on to college, he said.

Rehab therapy students who want to work as physical or occupational therapists will need advanced college degrees, so Duncan’s pathway program is designed to give students the foundation they’ll need to continue on to college, instructor Toby Garza said.

A Tight Fit Next Year

After the new building opens, Duncan’s enrollment will be able to increase somewhat, principal Eric Martinez said. The school has about 1,200 students now, and enrollment has been growing in recent years with expanded class offerings, including more AP courses, he said. Duncan hired four new teachers to support the increased enrollment, Martinez said.

The construction project, which will move or demolish portable classrooms at the west end of campus, will put a temporary squeeze on the campus, and teachers are gearing up to share spaces, he said.

“I think everyone’s excited about the end outcome, and we’re willing to sacrifice for a year some tight quarters to know that in the end it’s going to be great for everyone,” he said.

When the health sciences building opens, it will free up classrooms to core classes as well as art and music classes, Martinez said. And it will mean that the school’s music instructor to be able to use a single classroom instead of two to teach keyboarding and basic guitar music production, as he does now, he said.

The new building will expand opportunities for health sciences students. Diaz said Duncan will be able to be a test site for certified nursing assistant evaluators.

“We’re hoping to add more certifications for our students, too, because we’ll have an actual clinical site. This is not a clinical site. If we want to do phlebotomy or any other additional certifications, we will now have a space where we can add extra certifications to our students because we have the space to do that.”

CTE Continues to Grow but Needs State Support

Duncan’s new health sciences building is a sign of how career technical education is growing, and it likely will inspire some students to consider a career in the health care field, said Valerie Vuicich, who is retiring at the end of June as executive director for CTE/ROP programs at the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools Office.

 “Kids want to be someplace where they feel like it’s cutting edge and things are up to date. And what they’re going to learn there is going to prepare them much more quickly for life after high school. And so I think finishing out that pathway by being able to put that building together is just going to add a level of sophistication.” — Valerie Vuicich, executive director, Fresno County CTE/ROP programs 

“Kids want to be someplace where they feel like it’s cutting edge and things are up to date,” she said. “And what they’re going to learn there is going to prepare them much more quickly for life after high school. And so I think finishing out that pathway by being able to put that building together is just going to add a level of sophistication.”

Career technical education programs require a substantial investment, not only to build buildings and buy equipment, but also to provide ongoing support and staffing, and in California a shortage of those dollars has limited what school districts can provide, said Vuicich, who also is retiring soon as executive director of the California Association for Career Technical Education.

California’s CTE operations grant program is a two-for-one match, but there’s never been enough money to meet the state’s needs, she said. As an example, “we put in a consolidated, a consortium application on behalf of 17 of our smaller districts (in Fresno County). And collectively, our match has been between $10 and $12 million from all that group. The most we ever received in that process was $4 million. So never anything close to our 5 or 6 (million dollars) that we could have. And it was a diminishing thing. So our last two years we’ve been a million five, a million three.”

But Vuicich said she’s hopeful that is changing: The new proposed state budget contains twice as much money — $300 million instead of $150 million — for career technical education operations grants. The extra money will make a “huge difference” in being able to start up new career pathways and expand existing ones, she said.

CTE is expanding because programs like those at Duncan are proof that career technical education doesn’t have to be an “either-or” for students who also want a college option, Vuicich said. High schoolers continue to have access to the A-G courses they need to enter one of the state’s public universities, to AP courses, and to dual enrollment courses for college credit, all while gaining exposure to career options.

“Their realization is, they can’t afford to only focus on the couple hundred kids that could be physically housed at Duncan, they’ve really got to build it up all around the district,” Vuicich said. “I think they learned that when they put the magnet program together at Roosevelt for the performing arts and when they put Computech together, over in the Edison area.

“I think it also creates momentum because as more of those programs finish and as more and more kids get involved, it just makes CTE a more normal part of the entire curriculum, instead of some little offshoot that has its little moment of glory right now. It moves it from flavor of the month to a main entree.”

The new CTE building project will include a plaza for student activities in this artist’s rendering. (Fresno Unified)

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