New West Virginia School Offers Free Nursing Courses for High School Students

This is a photo of two teenage girls pursuing careers in nursing posing in a mock doctor's office at a charter school.
This is a photo of two teenage girls pursuing careers in nursing posing in a mock doctor's office at a charter school.

This article was originally published in West Virginia Watch.

A new charter school in West Virginia gives students the opportunity to jump-start a degree in nursing before they graduate from high school, saving them thousands of dollars in college tuition costs.

Win Academy, the state’s first charter school housed within a community college, is an accelerated degree program that allows juniors and seniors to complete the first year of a registered nurse program while finishing their high school credits.

The program is free to students who take college courses.

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Abby Frame and Abby Persinger, both 16 year olds, decided to forgo their senior year at Herbert Hoover High School to enter the academy, which is in its first year of operation at BridgeValley Community and Technical College in South Charleston.

The pair, who are close friends, plan to become nurses.

“I really looked forward to being able to cut time off of my college experience,” said Frame, who lives in Elkview.

She and Persinger will finish high school a year early — another perk that drew them to Win Academy — and allow them to complete their registered nursing (RN) degrees by the time they’re 18. An RN starting out makes around $67,000 in West Virginia, according to a national health care salary tracker.

The girls areed that that the decision to transfer to the charter school was emotional but worth it.

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“We just had to put our future first,” said Persinger, a Clendenin resident.

Amid nationwide declining college enrollment rates, states across the country are introducing college coursework to high school students through dual-enrollment programs in hopes of reversing the decline. Many states cover the college tuition cost for high schoolers — an enticing option for families looking to avoid student loan debt. BridgeValley has seen an enthusiastic response to the nursing-track program, and college leaders plan to expand in 2024 with a manufacturing focused program.

Casey Sacks, president of BridgeValley Community and Technical College, said programs like the Win Academy were critical in helping young adults avoid a “lost decade.”

Typical BridgeValley students find the college in their 30s, she said, after they’ve spent years working low-paying jobs in retail and food service. West Virginia has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates.

“It’s been a whole decade lost to something that wasn’t their career,” Sacks said. “So, anything we can do to help students sooner find a pathway into a good paying job … that’s a win for our whole region.”

Nursing charter school not limited to local students

State lawmakers signed off on charter schools in 2021 as part of the Republican-majority’s work to expand school choice in West Virginia. Under state law, the schools operate as public schools and receive the bulk of the state’s intended funding per student.

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The state now has five charter schools, which includes two virtual schools and Win Academy.

Sacks explained that the state’s charter school model best fits her vision for improving college access and career exposure for high school students.

“I was ready, and our faculty was ready,” she said. “We felt like we needed to prove that it could work here in West Virginia.”

She continued, “Win Academy really is for any student who says, ‘I want to go into this health care career.’”

Health care was a natural fit — the college already offered nursing education as well as programs in medical sonography and health care management — and the state was facing a health care shortage while multiple hospitals were near the college.

The academy isn’t limited to Kanawha County students, though the program doesn’t provide transportation. Along with the state funds, Sacks said they’ve used grant money to gas gift cards, books and other supportive services for up to 60 students.

Under state charter school rules, eligible students may participate in team sports at public high schools; Persinger plays volleyball at a nearby school.

Alongside nursing coursework, students also take any needed credits, like math or history courses, on campus that are needed to graduate from high school.

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“The students’ schedules are all customized,” Sacks said. “We make sure that they meet their high school graduation requirements, because we don’t want any of them to end up in a place where you have some nursing classes, but you’ve never finished high school.”

The courses are challenging, Sacks added.

“I think the student that [we] have is a little more motivated,” said Beth Timmons, a math professor at BridgeValley who teaches Win Academy students.

While the school has drawn top-performing students, Sacks emphasized that she wanted the program to be accessible to students who desire a well-paying job in the health care industry. Two academy students are experiencing homelessness, she said.

“Now, [they’re] going to have a job that pays a real livable wage,” she said. “I am amazed by them.”

Once students graduate from high school, they’re automatically enrolled in BridgeValley’s second-year nursing program where they can complete their RN degree one year after high school graduation. BridgeValley’s graduation rate is around 75%, Sacks said.

Academy students can opt to transfer to a four-year university to earn their bachelor’s in nursing, where they’d likely enroll as juniors with their first two years earned at no cost. At least one student, according to Sacks, is using the opportunity to jumpstart a plan to attend medical school. Another student realized that she didn’t like traditional nursing, so faculty helped her pursue other options, like sonography.

Charter school will expand to include manufacturing

BridgeValley will expand its charter school offerings next year with a manufacturing-focused program.

The college, authorized to admit up to 120 high school students, already offered programs in manufacturing technology.

Sacks said a nearby Toyota executive asked for the program to help address a regional workforce shortage. Families were also asking for other dual-enrollment opportunities besides nursing, she added.

The West Virginia Professional Charter School Board signed off on the idea earlier this week, and the enrollment for juniors and seniors is expected to launch early next year for the 2024-25 school year.

“The junior year will look very similar [as nursing]… then It allows students to transition in their senior year into manufacturing specific courses instead of nursing specific courses,” Sacks said.

After high school graduation, local manufacturing jobs are expected to pay around $80,000.

BridgeValley plans to hold a graduation next spring for its inaugural Win Academy students.

Frame and Persinger laughed as they discussed plans for senior photos and graduation gowns.

“You have to be mature for your age to be able to handle this and all the stress and work that comes with this,” Persinger said. “But, it’s worth it if you know what you want.”

West Virginia Watch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. West Virginia Watch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Leann Ray for questions: Follow West Virginia Watch on Facebook and Twitter.