STEUBENVILLE - For income-eligible students who think they don't stand a chance at being successful at studying for and then finding a career in the health care field, there's "hope."
And it's in the form of a unique $15 million, five-year demonstration grant called Project HOPE.
Shari Prichard, program administrator, gave the federally funded grant program a sort of checkup as she presented specifics about it as a presenter at a recent meeting of the Steubenville Kiwanis Club.
PROGRAM PARTICULARS — Shari Prichard, program administrator for Project HOPE, reviews some program particulars with Kris Haught, president-elect of the Steubenville Kiwanis Club, before her recent presentation to the group on the income-eligible program designed to provide guidance, support, training and job placement for students interested in a career in health care. The $15 million grant for the five-year demonstration project covers a four-county area that includes Jefferson, Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumball counties and 11 educational partners, including Eastern Gateway Community College, fiscal agent.
-- Janice Kiaski
Its members seemed impressed with the information and the "quick facts" provided in informational packets, including:
Year-to-date enrollment: 1,684.
Year-to-date completion: 985;
Still active in the program: 510;
Retention rate: 89 percent;
Year-to-date employment: 748; and
Employment rate of completed students: 76 percent.
The program, designed to help qualifying students enroll in and complete health care training and obtain employment, is approaching its fifth and final year in a four-county area that includes Jefferson, Columbiana, Trumball and Mahoning.
It is assisting students seeking associate degrees and/or certificates in a variety of health care careers - among them medical lab technicians, medical assisting, LPNs, registered nurses, occupational therapy assistants, medical coding and billing, pharmacy technicians, respiratory therapy and others.
The program wraps up in September 2015, according to Prichard.
"The demonstration grant came out of the federal Department of Health and Human Services in 2010, and the purpose was to evaluate whether intensive coaching can make an impact on folks," explained Prichard, who oversees a staff of 20 people at 11 educational partners, including fiscal agent Eastern Gateway Community College with its Jefferson County Campus and Valley Center; Trinity Health System School of Nursing; Kent State University at East Liverpool and Salem; Youngstown State University; Choffin Career and Technical Center; Columbiana County Career and Technical Center; Mahoning County Career and Technical Center; Trumball Career and Technical Center; Hannah E. Mullins School of Practical Nursing; and Humility of Mary Health Partners.
In order to qualify for Project HOPE, students must be at or below the federal poverty level, according to Prichard. "When you look in the brochure, you'll see that 200 percent of the federal poverty level is quite a big income. In our area it's a family of four for almost $48,000 a year, so you can make $48,000 a year and still qualify for this program," she said.
Students also have to be enrolled in a health care training program at any of the partnering institutions where they will be paired with a student coach to provide ongoing guidance and support.
"We have student coaches at each facility. The coach's primary job is to get to know that student, what classes they need to be attending, when do they need to be attending, to find out about their personality. We do a lot of surveys with the students, we know what their barriers are, we know if they have kids, we have a very high percentage of single moms - about 68 percent - so these are all moms going back to school because they want to better themselves and their children and we're very excited to be able to help them.
"To date, the actual numbers are 1,684 students enrolled; 985 completed; and we have about 510 still active," Prichard said. "A lot of those students graduated in May, but we keep them in our program for six months for job placement purposes," Prichard said.
"Our retention rate is about 89 percent of all those students who enroll, who stay in the program and don't drop out, so we're real excited with our retention rate," Prichard said, "and our employment rate, we employed 748 individuals in health care jobs, which is 76 percent of those who graduated, so we're pretty excited about that as well.
"We do extensive research with these folks on a regular basis, so we call them six months after they have received their jobs to see how's it going, and each time a student can contact their coach back and ask for assistance or help in a lot of different ways," Prichard explained.
"Two of the things we really wanted to find out was 100 percent of these individuals are receiving food stamps and Medicaid - the two services that are the highest on our priroity list. Six months after employing them, 98 percent of those students are no longer receiving both of those services, so we know there's a very positive impact happening on the students graduating and getting jobs," she said.
"It really does change their lives," she said.
"The way the program works is a student has to already be enrolled in that educational institution before they can come into Project HOPE," Prichard said. "Once they are enrolled, and we identify that they do qualify financially for the program, they are randomly selected. At this point, it's a lottery system. That's so the government can study those folks. There's a group at every facility that's a control group, a group that didn't get in but qualified, and the students that did get in because they qualified," she said.
"The government is going to follow up with both sets of students over the next 36 months just to discuss with them, did this program have an impact on you, did you see success while you were there. And for those students who were in the control group and not receiving services, do you think if you had received services would it have helped you, so there's a very intensive study going on," Prichard said.
"So they're going to study all of our data for three years and maybe in three or four years come up with a program or plan or something that may come out of what is going on currently with all this research," she added.
A study funded by the federal government is being conducted to determine how the training opportunities help people improve their skills and find better jobs, according to promotional material.
"Our focus now is on job readiness," said Prichard, noting she worked in health care for 15 years before coming on board at EGCC. "What I found repeatedly is when someone came to the door to interview, they weren't really ready for that interview. A lot of them were not dressed appropriately. A lot of them did not speak appropriately. A lot of them did not look appropriately for a job interview, and when you're working in health care, there are very high expectations because health care facilities want the best employees," she said.
During her time in the health care field, Prichard said she might, for example, receive an average of 78 resumes for one medical assisting position. Her practice was to pull the 10 best resumes and from there, conduct interviews.
"Some of those folks, no joke, would walk in with pajamas on," she said. "I've had people who walk in to an interview with bunnies (designs) on their pants, and what do you do with that? I'm not going to hire you, but I also don't want to let you out of my office without letting you know you'll never get a job looking like this."
While the education itself is important, so, too, is readiness for the job market interviewing process.
"These folks are not just interviewing in Jefferson County, they're going to Pittsburgh. It's a much tougher job market there from a professional standpoint. They have to be ready to sit down, look professional and answer those questions, so we start at the very beginning," Prichard said.
A student in Project HOPE is required to come to one group meeting every month. "It's a meeting with about 20 people. We talk about soft skills, we have fun, and we get in small groups and do things to help them grow and expand professionally. They also have to meet with their coach once a month, sit down for a 30-minute meeting and talk about how are your classes going, are you struggling anywhere, do you need a tutor, do you need help, is there anything going on in your life that is going to keep you out of class so that we really understand what's going on with them," Prichard continued.
"They're also required weekly to talk to their coach, so we really know where you are and what's going on, and if you do end up dropping out of our program, you're part of that 30 or 28 percent of dropouts. It's typically because you move out of the area, someone has passed away and you have had to change a whole lifestyle. Those students who want to succeed, we're able to help succeed," she said.
Preparing the students for interview questions strengthens their employability and so does acquainting them with health care lingo and a method of customer service exclusive to hospitals across the country and health care professionals.
The program also brings in guest speakers and employers to address what they're looking for in a new hire.
"We work on everything down to what you're wearing," Prichard said. "If you say to us I don't have anything to wear, we have suits for guys and a suit for women. We'll buy it. We'll get it for you. We want you to look professional, we want you to know what to say, and we practice this with our students all the time - all the time," Prichard said.
The program has two job placement specialists who approach employer partners and promote the students, devising a couple of incentives to get their interest.
"Number one is a job training contract, so if you hire a Project HOPE student and you can do some extra orientation with that student, we will reimburse up to $1,800 for the time you spend with that student," Prichard said. "That money doesn't go to the student, but to the facility to reimburse the trainer."
Prichard said the program also boasts a ready-and-waiting database of student resumes for would-be employers.
As for additional perks for students in Project HOPE, it provides financial assistance for books, fees and screenings; emergency funding for utilities, rent, car repair, food and childcare; gas cards; and an incentive program to earn points redeemable for what normally would be out-of-pocket expenses for everything from lab coats and scrub tops to stethoscopes and school supplies.
"We want our students to be engaged from the moment they enter the program to achieve," Prichard said, noting that pursuing a $15 million grant may have seemed like an overly ambitious goal for a community this size.
"It was really just amazing and exciting when we got the call from Washington saying 'Congratulations, you're one of the 32 grantees across the country receiving the $15 million to do the program you proposed to us,'" Prichard said.
At the time of writing the grant application, Prichard said Jefferson County had the highest unemployment rate in the state, almost 15.7 percent, a factor that likely helped in securing the grant.
The "great news" after four years into Project HOPE, however, is "we have dropped way far back down and no longer are the highest now. Getting 748 students through the program employed helped lower the statistic, she said.
The typical student involved in Project HOPE is a female between the ages of 24 and 36.
"We do have some that are 46 to 64," Prichard said, noting the program also has some participants fresh out of high school in addition to a cluster of students in the 50-to-65 age range, reflecting individuals "who have been working in other things throughout their lives, gotten laid off and things have shut down in the area, and they have gone back to school to be trained."
The most advanced degree earned in the program are associate level, Prichard explained, "because the government gave us five years to get them in and out and in jobs, so we knew if we did bachelor degrees, it would never work. We'd never get anybody employed."
Even so, the income level for graduates can be $25 to $26 an hour.
A new graduate with a new job gets another perk upon receiving a first paycheck - a $50 congratulatory gas card.
The program has a limited capacity in its final year. "Typically our largest enrollment year was 752 students in year two, but since then about 200 to 300 a year," Prichard said.
"This fall is our last enrollment season. We will be accepting students going into one-year programs because we have to get them in and out," she said. In the final year of the grant, the program can help students pursuing, as one example, a medical assisting certificate.
The grant is not available to be renewed, according to Prichard.
"It was a demonstration grant, so they want to study all of the data and then come up with what they want to do, change policies for social services programs in the future."