In 2002, amidst an extreme shortage of qualified health care professionals in the greater Sacramento, CA area, the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) was in the process of developing a network of small, focused high schools. Founders met to start the design process of this theme-based STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) high school that would center around healthcare professions and partner with both community and industry to offer a cutting-edge program for students from all backgrounds. The resulting 500-student school has been nothing short of amazing.
The design team, consisting of the architect, district staff, community members, and local community colleges, began the three-year process with great zeal. Gathering ideas from both other healthcare high school programs across the country and successful collegiate programs, their goal was to create more of a warm, inviting “home” environment for healthcare students, and less of a sterile or clinical feel usually associated with hospitals.
The design team faced unique challenges given its small 7-acre site in a mixed-used area combining commercial / industrial, institutional and residential neighborhoods. The design was finalized with a compact cluster of buildings with a “Northern California Aesthetic” centered around an academic quad. Labs are situated at the front of the campus with “front door” access, so that community colleges can teach evening classes there given joint-use agreements.
While the campus is open to all students, many who attend this school are investigating the medical professions, or \ have a desire to become a doctor, nurse, or veterinarian. The healthcare-centered instructional approach drives the program. However, a wide variety of courses are offered to students in this college-prep environment in which most students will complete two college courses by the time they graduate.
In an address to United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Bill Gates Sr. spoke of the importance of businesses and schools partnering to enrich high school environments, making them meaningful and relevant for students. His speech highlighted Health Professions High School: “All of these students will also graduate having completed a rigorous curriculum that prepared them for college. This school has not just been adopted by a business partner; it has been adopted by an industry. Health Professions High has about 300 partners who arrange not only internships but also field trips, guest speakers, and job shadow programs.” A number of these partners provided generous donations to make the school a reality.
Whether building new small schools or breaking up large, impersonal schools, planners can create the conditions for improved academic achievement by designing schools more agile and responsive to meeting student needs. Small is “big” and it is about getting the “rightsize”.