Health Programs Make the Grade

When it comes to nursing and radiologic technology education, several of Alabama’s community colleges are making the grade with a high number of students passing licensure exams on the first try.

Nursing programs at Lawson State, Coastal Alabama and Wallace State community colleges have 100 percent pass rates on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) for nursing, according to reports by the Alabama Board of Nursing. 

Jefferson State Community College’s radiologic technology students have achieved a 100 percent pass rate on the national registry exam of the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT). 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment for both licensed practical nurses and registered nurses will climb 16 percent by 2024, while employment for radiology technicians will rise by nine percent during the same period.

Graduating Radiology Technicians

Students who enroll in Jefferson State Community College’s radiologic technology program can earn their associate’s degree to become X-ray professionals, able to operate CT scanners and other high-tech imaging equipment used for patient examinations in hospitals, emergency clinics and doctors’ offices. 

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Christie Bolton directs the program that Jefferson State offers at its Shelby County-Hoover campus on Valleydale Road. The radiologic technology program graduates have a 100 percent passage rate on the National Registry exam administered by the credentialing agency known as the American Registry of Radiologic Technologists (ARRT).

Gaining admittance into the radiologic technology program, however, is not easy, says Bolton. The program accepts only 35 students each fall.

“It’s very competitive, ” says Bolton. “We typically have about 150 applicants for those 35 slots.” 

To enter the program, students must have an ACT score of at least 18. Grades in math, biology and English are also considered. 

“We have a great mixture of students, ” she says. They come straight from high school, from college or another career. “Although the field is predominately female, we are seeing more men.”

Students in the program study subjects such as anatomy and physiology, radiographic procedures, exposure principles, radiation protection, image evaluation and pathology. Later on, they learn how to position patients for diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy. 

“We’ve recently installed a state-of-the-art digital radiography room, ” she says. “We have portable radiography equipment. We also have the capabilities of doing analog or film screening.”

Students practice their radiography skills using full- and partial-body “phantoms” or mannequins where they can rehearse moving and positioning patients and taking images. They also learn how to take blood pressure and temperatures, as well as other tasks within the scope of the radiology technician’s job, she says. 

Once students earn their Associate in Applied Science degree, they can then use the credits toward a four-year degree at a university if they choose to further their education. 

Radiology students, however, must pass the ARRT exam to practice. Bolton says instructors at Jefferson State take care to teach the information that students will need on the certification exam. “This allows students to be able to apply the principles they’ve learned to all of the variables on the exam, ” she says. 

She says the program’s instructors also work to identify and assist students who appear to struggle with the coursework. 

“We are personally connected to our students, ” says Bolton. “I think that’s just part of the community college process. We want to see our students succeed.” 

Nursing students at Coastal Alabama learn CPR and other vital functions on an iStan mannequin. 

Topping the Nursing Program List

According to the Alabama Board of Nursing, the school formerly known as Faulkner State Community College, based in Bay Minette, has had NCLEX pass rates of 100 percent for its licensed practical nursing (LPN) program, as well as its registered nursing (RN) program for the last three academic years. In fact, ranks its RN program as number one in Alabama. 

Today, Faulkner State has a new name, Coastal Alabama Community College, following Faulkner’s merger with Alabama Southern Community College and Jefferson Davis Community College in 2016. With the merger, students can take nursing classes in Bay Minette, Fairhope, Brewton, Monroeville or Thomasville.

Coastal Alabama’s Director of Nursing and Allied Health Jean Graham says the nursing curriculum’s design is based on current trends in nursing education, as well as recent developments in health care.  

“There has been a big push for nurses to graduate knowing how to care for the elderly with the growing population of older baby boomers, ” says Graham, “and for nursing education to be more interactive, in which lectures are coupled with more in-class discussions and team exercises that cover concepts discussed in class.”

For hands-on training, the nursing program has two skills labs with static mannequins, where students can learn the skills required for nursing care, she says. 

The school also has a simulation lab with a wireless device called iStan. The device is a mannequin that is engineered to mimic symptoms and bodily functions, so nursing students can practice CPR and other maneuvers under realistic scenarios. 

“It’s a controlled environment where we can see how the students are going to react and get a better feel for whether they can think critically and outside of the box and think under stress. It’s a great learning experience. Afterward, they’re debriefed, and they can view themselves in the video so they can see what they didn’t do correctly with coaching from the instructors.”

Coastal Alabama Community College admits 150 students each year, says Graham. Most are non-traditional students. The instructors, she says, encourage students to not work. 

“It’s rare to find an individual who can juggle a full-time job and nursing and be successful because of the volume of material they have to learn, ” she says. “You have to be able to put the time into it.” 

At the end of their third semester, students can choose to take the NCLEX exam to work as LPNs. LPNs work under the supervision of RNs and physicians.

To prepare for the NCLEX, Graham says the instructors regularly administer computerized exams with “NCLEX styled questions” to get students comfortable with the testing environment. 

“I have good instructors, ” says Graham. “We set our criteria high. Our expectations are high, and we don’t lower the bar.” 

Nursing Programs Get High Marks

Lawson State Community College, a historically black school in Jefferson County, has one of the top-rated nursing programs in Alabama. ranked Lawson State’s associate’s degree RN program at number two out of 43 RN programs in Alabama on its “Best RN Programs in Alabama” list, which includes both two- and four-year colleges and universities. ranked Lawson’s practical nursing (PN) program at number three out of 19 on its “2017 Best LPN Programs in Alabama.” 

In addition, Lawson State has had NCLEX-RN and LPN pass rates of 100 percent for the last two academic years, according to the Alabama Board of Nursing.  

Admission to Lawson’s nursing program is competitive with, on average, 150 applicants accepted each year. The school’s nursing advisory committee selects applicants based on grade point averages, pre-requisite courses, ACT scores and grades in biology classes. 

“We plan to admit up to a total of 225 students each year, ” says Shelia Marable, Lawson State’s associate dean of health professions. 

Lawson State has two campuses. Its instructors teach RN courses at the Birmingham campus and LPN classes at the Bessemer campus. 

Katrina Swain, chair of Lawson State’s practical nursing program, says the school’s small class sizes are an advantage for students.

“You get more one-on-one attention, ” says Swain. “We do call the roll. You can speak with your teachers after class. We also have a tutor for the students.”

Practice labs offer students the chance to hone their skills on high-tech patient simulators and using virtual simulations online on computers, Swain says. 

“We’ve had great support from our administration that has allowed us to purchase the simulators for our campus labs to prepare students prior to going to the clinical settings and agencies, ” Swain says.

The nursing students gain clinical experiences at area hospitals and clinics like the Birmingham VA Medical Center. They also participate in a two-day disaster training drill in Anniston at the Center for Domestic Preparedness to learn procedures for dealing with patients exposed to chemical, biological or nuclear accidents or injured due to explosions.

PN students take classes for three semesters before sitting for the NCLEX-PN exam. The RN program, on the other hand, is five semesters. Upon completing the coursework, those students take the NCLEX-RN exam. LPN graduates who return to school within two years can enter Lawson’s “LPN to RN Mobility Program” and start the third semester of the RN program.

Lawson’s nursing program is tough. Marable says their instructors do not typically round up grades or offer extra credit assignments. 

“We work with them, ” says Marable. “We have resources available for them, and so we feel that the teaching that we do and the time that we take with them is sufficient to make sure that when they graduate, they’re completely ready to take that NCLEX exam and be successful.”

Gail Allyn Short and Cary Norton are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. They are based in Birmingham.

Text By GAIL ALLYN SHORT // Photo by cary norton

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