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August 1, 2014

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The Turnaround:

Western High takes healthy step forward

School’s STEM Academy puts students on career paths

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Leila Navidi

Tommy Anderson teaches Healthcare Occupations class at Western High School in Las Vegas Tuesday, November 1, 2011.

Nursing at Western

Tommy Anderson teaches Healthcare Occupations class at Western High School in Las Vegas Tuesday, November 1, 2011. Launch slideshow »

This is another in a yearlong series of stories tracking Clark County School District’s efforts to turn around five failing schools.

Tommy Anderson fires off questions that sound more familiar in a teaching hospital than a high school classroom.

What’s the difference between systolic and diastolic blood pressure? Hypertension and hypotension? Tachycardia and bradycardia?

Anderson looks around his class of 40 freshmen and sophomores, some with hands raised high. The head of the new health occupations program at Western High School is pioneering an advanced level of coursework that is more likely to be found in Clark County’s prestigious magnet schools than at one of its at-risk, turnaround high schools.

“Who’s most at risk of hypertension?” Anderson asks. “Which ethnic groups?”

A Hispanic boy in the back of the room proffers an answer. “We are,” he says.

Anderson nods his head, and pulls up the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website on the projection monitor. One in three blacks and one in four Hispanics has hypertension, he tells the class.

Anderson – whose tie clip is bright red and shaped like a heart — scans the room, which is, like the rest of Western, majority minority. Close to 90 percent of the student population is from a minority background, most being Hispanic or black.

“Hypertension is the 13th leading cause of death in the United States, and a major contributor to the first — heart disease — and third — stroke,” he says. “More than 325,000 people died of high blood pressure in 2006. But we can prevent this disease by educating your friends and family, and when you get into the workforce, educating your patients.”

•••

The former military nurse — he saw combat in Iraq during the first Gulf War — is now engaged in an uphill battle to raise the academic standards at Western, which has one of the lowest test scores and the worst graduation rate among the 49 high schools in the valley.

Alarmed by the statistics, the Clark County School District implemented a “turnaround model” at Western this year, injecting close to a million dollars in federal stimulus money and replacing half of the school’s staff.

Anderson, 41 and a registered nurse with 20 years of experience, was a nursing supervisor at Nellis Air Force Base until his retirement this past summer. He turned down several lucrative job offers from area hospitals, enlisting instead to head up the health occupations program at Western’s new STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Academy.

The fledging program gives students the opportunity to graduate high school with a nursing assistant’s certificate, a unique opportunity for Western students, many of whom come from low-income households, according to school officials.

With the certificate, Western graduates can make $40,000 straight out of high school in a growing industry that is in need of more nurses and nursing assistants, Anderson said.

The program has seen a surge of interest since it was introduced over the summer. More than 250 students have signed up for the nursing program, prompting school officials to expand it from a half-credit, one-semester course to a full-credit, yearlong one.

By January, Western hopes to open a new laboratory, complete with a mock hospital bed and curtains, CPR mannequins and medical equipment. New furniture and a hundred new textbooks — a 1,074-page tome entitled “Diversified Health Occupations” — are also on order.

Principal Neddy Alvarez is hopeful the new program — along with the academy’s other classes in biomedicine, broadcast journalism and computer science — will attract more neighborhood children back to Western. About 1,000 students zoned for Western are attending other magnet and technical schools, which offer rigorous STEM programs that comprehensive high schools like Western did not offer in the past.

For Anderson, the program is a way for the troubled high school to elevate its failing academic reputation, and give students the tools to make a decent living amid the worst recession in more than half a century.

“A lot of our kids are discouraged, being stereotyped and labeled as a student at a high-risk, turnaround school,” he said. “Their confidence level is low. I want to change that. This (program) is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

•••

Anderson is keenly aware of the challenges facing his students. He grew up in an impoverished, inner-city neighborhood of Columbia, S.C.

“We had poverty, violence, drugs,” he said. “All the same challenges I dealt with, a lot of these kids deal with at Western.”

Anderson became a teenage father by the time he was a high school junior. It forced him to grow up quickly, and yearn for a better life for his family. After graduating high school, he joined the military and used the GI Bill to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. Anderson credits his single mom, a nursing assistant, for inspiring him to go to college and become a nurse.

Now that he’s out of the military, Anderson said he want to make a difference in the lives of students growing up in poor, inner-city neighborhoods. He saw his opportunity at Western’s nursing program.

“There are a lot of high school kids who are misguided, who don’t know where to go,” he said. “You definitely have to challenge them, get them exposed and critically thinking about careers. We need to recruit more minorities and males into nursing.”

Anderson shares his personal story with students to gain rapport but also to serve as a role model. He’s always dressed sharply in a suit and tie, and gives constant reminders to his students to sit up and act professionally.

“I am one of you,” he tells his students. “If I can do it, you can too. Education is the key to life.”

•••

Anderson is now calling for three student volunteers to play the roles of a registered nurse, nursing assistant and patient. The class had just finished watching a four-minute video demonstrating the proper way to take a patient’s blood pressure reading using a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope.

The “nursing assistant” approaches her “patient” sitting in a chair, introduces herself and the procedure she is about to perform. The student sanitizes her hands and takes her counterpart’s blood pressure reading.

“Is 118 over 68 normal?” Anderson asks the rest of the class. A resounding “Yes” abounds. “What if her blood pressure was 148 over 102? What’s that called?”

Hypertension. It’s a disease Anderson is all too familiar with. He’s seen it in many of his patients, friends and family — and about a decade ago, he saw his own blood pressure start to creep up.

Anderson knew he had to live a healthier lifestyle. He started eating more fruits and vegetables, cut out “soul food” from his diet and took up running and coaching. His classroom, in a new wing at Western, sports pictures of his youth football teams and a plaque from one of his marathons.

Most of the risk factors that cause hypertension — hereditary, diet, weight, physical inactivity, alcohol and tobacco — can be controlled, Anderson tells his class. He attributes the obesity epidemic that’s causing heart disease to the proliferation of fast food restaurants and the sedentary “video game, microwave, pop-a-pill lifestyle” so prevalent in American society today.

“Greasy, fried and buttery food. Tacos and burritos. That’s part of our culture,” he says. “I believe that’s one of the big reasons why Afro-Americans and Hispanics have hypertension.”

There are plenty of free blood pressure monitors at big-box pharmacies throughout the valley, Anderson tells his students. Students can even purchase a blood pressure cuff for cheap.

“There’s absolutely no reason you or your parents can’t get your blood pressure checked every week,” he says. “This is a very serious matter. Tell your friends and family to get their blood pressure checked.”

The bell rings, and students begin streaming out. A girl walks up to Anderson, asking him for his professional opinion. Her brother recently got gauged earrings, and his ears were bleeding.

Anderson recommends treating it with hydrogen peroxide. Every week, he’s peppered with health care questions. A mother suffering from a headache, a father with an upset stomach, a grandmother with fruity breath, a sign of diabetes.

“A lot of these kids don’t have health insurance so they get their education from me,” Anderson says. He can’t officially diagnose illnesses without actually meeting with patients, but that doesn’t preclude him from informing his students and referring them to free health clinics.

“I definitely want to prepare them for the workforce, but right now, I want them to educate their moms, dads and families,” Anderson says. “This is really affecting you today; see the amount of people dying. But the thing is, we can prevent this.”

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  1. Great story. The only thing I take issue with is the $40,000 salary for a nursing assistant out of high school.