Morris County partnership lets high school students experience vast array of health care careers

By middle school, Ferouz Albukhari knew she wanted a career in the medical field.

As an eighth grader, she applied to the Academy for Health Care Sciences run by the Morris County Vocational School District. But, because of the overwhelming demand for the program, she was put on a wait list and instead attended the high school in her hometown of Montville.

In her junior year of high school, however, Ferouz got a second chance to pursue her dream, through a unique new program run by the Morris County Vocational School District, Atlantic Health System’s Chilton Medical Center, Pequannock Township Public Schools and the Rutgers School of Health Professions.

Ferouz attends the shared-time allied health program run by the county vocational district at Pequannock High School, where she takes Rutgers University courses and gets health care experience at the hospital across the street.

Now a senior, Ferouz said the opportunity helped her focus her career goals on becoming a pharmacist, and she has been accepted to three college pharmacy programs in the tri-state area.

“There are so many areas of medicine that I was interested in, but this program helped me realize that, because of my genuine interest in chemistry, I can branch out into pharmacy,” said Ferouz, who is working in the pharmacy department at Chilton.

The part-time program, launched in 2018, is open to students attending any Morris County high school. Juniors and seniors take their academic classes in their home high school, and then spend part of each day at Pequannock High School, where they earn 19 college credits from Rutgers, including courses in anatomy and physiology, emergency and clinical care, medical terminology and clinical research. The courses are taught by high school teachers who have been “deputized” as Rutgers adjunct professors.

In their junior year, students spend two days a week rotating through Chilton, shadowing a wide range of medical professionals. As seniors, they spend three days a week at the hospital, working in a specific department.

Allison Levenduski, a junior from Pequannock, said every member of her family has worked in the medical profession. Her mom is an ICU nurse at Hackensack University Medical Center. One grandmother worked as a nurse in a dermatologist’s office. The other worked in medical billing.

She knew she wanted to follow in their footsteps, so she enrolled in the program.

Levenduski initially thought she would want to work as a nurse in labor and delivery, pediatrics or the neonatal intensive care unit. But, after rotating through the different departments in the hospital, she discovered she loved working in the intensive care unit.

“Every nurse and doctor in the ICU was super-nice, and I just love the constant moving,” said Levenduski, who plans to attend college to study nursing, then work as a nurse while earning her master’s degree to become a nurse practitioner.

Exposing students to authentic work-based learning is a fundamental component of career and technical education, and all of the state’s 21 county vocational-technical schools offer students a variety of opportunities to get hands-on experience in high-demand, skilled professions.

Shari Castelli, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Morris County Vocational School District, said the program at Chilton is designed to give high school students exposure to the wide range of opportunities in the health care field and prepare them for the next step, whether that’s a job in the profession or continuing their education in college.

Health care professionals, in particular, are in high demand in New Jersey, and the program is designed to ensure the state has skilled professionals to meet the need.

Rosalie Winning, assistant superintendent of schools in Pequannock, said the program is great for students who aren’t sure about their career interests in middle school, but begin to figure it out before their junior year.

“With the county’s full-time program at Academy for Health Care Sciences, students have to decide as eighth-graders,” Winning said. “Not every child is ready to make that decision. This gives them a second opportunity as juniors to really go into something that they may be interested in.”

Barbara Martucci, the nurse manager for nursing education at Chilton, said the hospital was eager to partner with the vocational school to offer students work-based learning experiences. It’s a way for the hospital to give back to the community it serves, she said.

At first, employees weren’t sure what to do with the teens who were shadowing them. But, over time, Martucci said employees have embraced their roles as mentors.

“The students do amazing presentations about what they worked on throughout the year, and all the employees attend,” Martucci said.

The program has 32 seniors and 50 juniors this year. It is so successful, plans are underway to expand it next year to Atlantic Health System’s other hospitals, Hackettstown Medical Center and Newton Medical Center and Goryeb Children’s Hospital.

Martucci worked with Castelli and Winning to develop the hands-on experience, including giving the students the opportunity to rotate through each of the hospital departments.

“Many students come into the program and think there are only two jobs in a hospital — doctor or nurse,” Castelli said. “But hospitals are like cities. There’s so much going on and there are so many jobs and they’re all different. This program really brings to students the opportunity to learn that it’s not just about being a nurse or a doctor.”

For some students, the program has helped reinforce their desire to become a doctor. Allan Baum, a senior from Kinnelon who attends the Netherlands Reformed Christian School, said he now knows what path he wants to pursue.

“This program definitely helped me come to the conclusion that I wanted to be an anesthesiologist, because I was able to actually see what they did and talk to multiple anesthesiologists,” Baum said. “I spent a half-year in the operating room environment learning about it. I never would have thought that people with so much experience would be willing to spend time talking to a high school student like me.”