R.I. Medical Society proposes new medical charter school

Updated at 6:39 p.m.

PROVIDENCE – Pending approval from the R.I. Council on Elementary and Postsecondary Education, a very unique charter school could be launched next academic year to help address workforce needs within the health care sector.

The Rhode Island Medical Society has filed a proposal with the R.I. Department of Education to launch the Medical Preparatory Academy of Rhode Island, or “MedPrep,” for students in grades 7-12 from Pawtucket, Providence and Central Falls. According to the society’s application, MedPrep would provide students with unique opportunities to explore the medical field, as well as address existing disparities in the health care system by serving a diverse student population.

Dr. Bradley Collins, an associate professor of medicine at the Brown University Warren Alpert Medical School who chairs the Rhode Island Medical Society’s board, told Providence Business News the impetus in creating this school where children from underrepresented backgrounds “could have a head start” in graduate-level degree health care professions. According to data from the Association of American Medical Colleges noted in the proposal, African Americans, Latinos and Asians are underrepresented in medicine making up only 6.9%, 5.7% and 20.6%, respectively.

“We want to provide some equity to underrepresented groups,” Collins said. “They would receive age-appropriate medical education.”

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The school would also be the first of its kind not only in Rhode Island, but also across the U.S. Collins said they researched to see if other similar charter schools that MedPrep is looking to be exist elsewhere but could not find any.

Collins also said there was a “community push” to help increase diversity and equity within the health care sector.

“It seemed like a right type of partnership to give kids an education that they may want and also to fill that [health care workforce] pipeline from the very beginning,” Collins said.

If approved, MedPrep will launch next academic year serving 156 students in grades 7-8, Collins said. He said those two years will be “intensive” to make sure the students are at grade level for math and English language arts scores – which have been low across most of the state of late – so they can properly learn the curricula to be offered at MedPrep.

From there, MedPrep will add one new grade annually over the next four years, with the full grade 7-12 operation in place by the 2028-29 academic year, per the proposal. When students reach the high school level at MedPrep, the goal, Collins says, will be for students to learn such subjects as cardiology, pulmonology and gastroenterology intermixed with state-required high school education.

If approved, the school’s students will be chosen via a March random lottery, similar to how students are selected annually for charter school enrollment. Enrollment will be evenly split between three municipalities – 40% from Providence, 30% from Pawtucket and 30% from Central Falls, Collins said.

The school, itself, will operate out of the former Bishop Keough Regional High School facility in Pawtucket. The proposal says the main school building has 12 full-sized classrooms, which Collins said the building is “ready to go” for classes, and its annex building has an additional 6,300 square feet of space for student learning and administrative office space.

The classrooms will have student furniture, pupil-use technology, hardware, and software, instructional materials including interactive boards and specialized medical supplies. One such medical tool the school will have is a “Syndaver,” which Collins said is a “fake cadaver” that will mimic heartbeat sounds and allow for students to study the human body.

The curricula will also include students learning on-site at doctor’s offices and other medical facilities, depending on grade level, Collins said.

“There are people who are supportive at Brown Medical School, so you’ll be able to experience what it is like to be a pharmacy student or medical student, really to get them life experience,” Collins said. “These could also include internships and volunteer opportunities available to the kids.”

MedPrep’s first-year operating budget will be $2.8 million, according to the proposal. Collins said that along with a $400,000 grant from an anonymous donor, the three municipalities funding the students’ tuitions to attend MedPrep will help fund the operating budget, per the state’s charter guidelines. The school will also seek grants going forward as well, Collins said.

Regarding staff, the proposal says there will be eight classroom teachers, an administrative assistant, the nurse teacher, and special education director will report to the school director in the school’s first year. From there, 11 additional staffers will be hired in years two and three, and then two teachers and a nurse-teacher will be brought aboard by the fourth year.

The proposal is set to go before the council Dec. 19. RIDE spokesperson Victor Morente in an email Monday to PBN said the department is finalizing its review of the proposal, which will inform the recommendation to the council. He also said the state has seen “great demand” in the health care workforce and understands the “desire to promote equity and create pathways for students in this space.”

If the council approves the society’s proposal, the “ball will start rolling” with staff hires between December and March, Collins said.

If the school comes to fruition, Collins said it will be another opportunity for students to understand that “your zip code doesn’t define your opportunity.” He said there are about 20,000 children currently on waitlists for charter school admissions. That, he says, speaks to the need for quality schools.

“I think all those kids deserve to learn in the best schools possible and we want to try to help at least provide them with the best opportunities,” Collins said. “If we can help some kids along the way and help raise standards for our schools, we want every kid to have an opportunity.”

(UPDATED 17th paragraph to include comment from R.I. Department of Education.)

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.