"I really do believe that, together, we can change Dalton, but this truly is a model for how communities can change our state," she said.
One could say that the origin of the partnership between Dalton Public Schools and Mercer University dates back to the 1800s when Mercer trustees secured land on Fort Hill and promoted the first boys' school there, eventually being turned over to the city under the present school system.
Fast forward, and the school system is digging up those foundational roots through a modern day partnership to benefit students, as well as the medical community.
It started when Judge Cindy Morris, also a Mercer University trustee, saw an alignment between the mission of the medical college at Mercer University and the needs and resources present in Dalton.
Dr. Jean Sumner, dean of the Mercer University School of Medicine, shared that the medical school received state funds from Georgia to train healthcare professionals for rural communities. A foundation of MUSM is to recruit only Georgia students who are under-represented in medicine and reflect communities in Georgia. One of the best strategies for getting new nursing or physician assistant graduates to move to these rural areas is to recruit students directly from the communities that need them most so they might move back to their hometowns to work.
When Morris heard of Dean Sumner's desire to mentor students and help them excel, she immediately thought of Dalton students.
Dalton is unique in that it is not exactly rural, but the population is dynamic, which is a perfect match for Mercer.
Judge Morris called Dixie Kinard, a longtime community education advocate with whom she worked on the United Way's Women's Leadership Council. From there, the partnership began taking form as Kinard connected former Superintendent Jim Hawkins with Dean Sumner.
Morris knows Kinard as a local champion for women in the professions. "Dixie has such a passion for empowering young people," said Morris. "She spearheaded a project to teach girls that they can be anything they want to be." Impassioned to connect girls to careers, Kinard had previously hosted a career day at City Park School, and later at Dalton State College, for all district fifth grade students.
Kinard knows the business world is changing, and there are more opportunities than ever for young people to be successful. "We have a great learning environment, but we make it better when the community comes into the classroom and shares their passions," she said. "It all begins with education and making the learning experience better."
Mercer Director of Community Outreach and Population Health Laura Bland began meeting with DPS administration to develop strategies for getting students to consider pursuing careers the medical field. She described it as an "absolute mission match and alignment of resources."
Bland said that this isn't simply a recruiting tool for Mercer. "It's really to get the under-populated and underserved into medical school," she explained. "We want to set their sights on this pathway and develop a pipeline to get the right students in our seats by giving them the steps to take along the way."
A Community Healthcare Consortium
The partnership has expanded significantly since its origin to include not only Dalton Public Schools and Mercer University, but also Dalton State College, Hamilton Medical Center, the United Way of Northwest Georgia and Northwest Georgia Healthcare Partnership. For that reason, it is being described as a consortium, as the collaboration also includes any organizations whose mission aligns in supporting healthcare and education in the community.
Dr. Sumner said Mercer wants its students to go into a place where they can practice superb healthcare. "Good folks live in rural communities and do really meaningful work. I think some of the best medicine can be practiced in a town like Dalton because of a lot of things," she explained. "You have a good doctor, you have continuity, you know everything about your patients because you see them everywhere you go. And they know you care about them. We want our students exposed to that."
Pat Chute, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Dalton State College, knows this is a great opportunity for local students to be exposed to the benefits of attending Dalton State. Their nursing program is well known in the area in turning out good results. Dalton State is affordable, close to home and not too big. "We want to be their first choice. We want them to know that they don't have to go to Atlanta for an excellent education," she said.
Dalton State is working to have students understand what a purposeful choice is, in terms of what they are studying and why they are studying. Another critical part of the process is the academic mindset of individuals that come from rural populations who feel that medical school is out of reach or out of their own capabilities.
"To get them to come out of that fixed mindset and into a growth mindset where they can say 'this experience is really benefiting me as a person, as well as the greater good' is so important," said Chute. "The experiences through this partnership are going to allow us to expand what we do here at Dalton State in terms of growth mindset, purposeful choice and community engagement."
Hamilton Medical Center is also looking to the future, in terms of their future workforce, as they expand with new centers and programs of their own.
"Hamilton's mission is to be partners and leaders in community and to advance quality of life, so we hope to keep building those relationships so we can play a small role in educating our future medical staff," said Rachel Ogle, community outreach manager for Hamilton.
Cathy Ferguson, Hamilton's chief nursing officer, explained that there is a bond between staff and patients who come from the same, small community. The hospital feels that its job is taking care of family, friends and neighbors. Dr. Rick Fromm, local surgeon and chair of the Dalton Board of Education, said the partnership would expose people to the good qualities of Dalton, thus inviting them to plant their roots here.
"It's not a lack of interest, but a lack of knowing where to go next. This will help answer a lot of those questions and help students overcome some of the barriers they face," he said.
The Partnership Made Manifest
The hands-on experiences through this partnership will help immerse students in the whole process so they can visualize the whole picture – how to go from middle school to medical school. This helps them wrap their minds around the steps they need to take to work in the medical field.
Dalton State is the primary partner with DPS, as the district's institution of choice. As the school system exposes middle school and older students to the healthcare industry, they could go to Dalton State and then do their medical schooling with Mercer.
The first piece of the partnership was introducing the Into to Healthcare Science class in fall of 2017 at Dalton Middle School, spearheaded by Heather Sliger. That class gave the partnership entry points to continue developing, as it gave speakers a place to speak and donations a place to be used.
Hamilton has donated more than 50 pieces of healthcare technology supplies to equip the classroom and will continue to support the program by making donations to the classroom biannually.
Classes will be added at Dalton High School to create a healthcare science pathway in the 2018-19 school year to allow students to follow through with their medical field education. The focus will be a little different than the pathway at Morris Innovative High School, which allows students to graduate as a Certified Nursing Assistant.
The next step was creating the first-ever summer medical camp, held June 25-28.
Six Mercer Medical students dedicated a week of their summer to executing this medical camp with the theme of a knee replacement. The camp was set up in a similar way to the curriculum at Mercer in that it is problem-based. Students heard from an orthopedic surgeon and toured the hospital. The last day of camp was spent at Bradley Wellness Center learning about physical therapy and what happens to a patient post-knee replacement.
Hamilton provided the building for the home base of the camp, and Dalton State hosted a day in its new Simulation Lab. It added authenticity to be in professional healthcare buildings instead of a school setting. United Way donated money to cover the supplies for camp activities, such as a fetal pig dissection, building a first aid kit to take home and creating a model knee out of clay.
The camp was offered to students at no charge. Dalton Public Schools provided staffing and transportation, and school nutrition provided breakfast each morning and one of the lunches. Stadium Barbeque, Dos Bros Fresh Mexican Grill and Honey Baked Ham donated lunches on the other camp days. The United Way of Northwest Georgia funded t-shirts, bags and most of the camp supplies. Whitfield Healthcare Foundation paid for the Dalton State housing for the Mercer students. Hamilton has also helped with guest speakers and professional resources for both the class and medical camp.
"Partnering with these other organizations gives the district the opportunity to provide experiences we could never provide on our own; we could never do this without help," said Jennifer Phinney, DPS director of school support.
Mercer students will receive school credit for helping put the camp together. Their goal was to help students understand healthcare literacy and how they might navigate their way to medical school.
They also created pre and post surveys to track the effectiveness of the camp's goals.
Now that the camp is over, the Mercer volunteers are creating a package foundation for the district to use in replicating the camp each summer, but also to track its progress and the attendees' future success. Mercer's goal is to send medical students every year to staff the camp.
Many of the students in Dalton Public Schools are first in family to either graduate high school or go to college. They don't have a picture of themselves in a healthcare career, nor do they know the amount of careers there are available. The way to help them see that future is to reach back to students as young as middle school age.
Laura Bland said she has seen her medical students' passion for teaching younger students, and the camp continues to align with the school's mission. "I really do believe that, together, we can change Dalton, but this truly is a model for how communities can change our state," she said.