Baptist Health-Fort Smith and Mercy Fort Smith announced Monday (Feb. 8) a collaboration to invest $1 million in healthcare science programming at the Fort Smith Public School’s Peak Innovation Center.
Each entity will contribute $500,000. Their contributions will help expand programming and square footage as well as purchase state-of-the-art equipment for the healthcare sciences programs that will be housed at Peak, an FSPS press release said.
The Peak Innovation Center, scheduled to open for the 2021-22 school year, will be a regional career and technology center with a focus on instructional strategies within the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) disciplines. Fort Smith voters in May 2018 approved a school millage increase, the first in 31 years, raising the millage rate in Fort Smith from 36.5 mills to 42 mills. The new rate is expected to raise $120.822 million, $35 million of which will go toward district-wide safety improvements. The millage plan also included a new $13.724 million career and technology center, now the Peak Innovation Center, featuring specialized lab spaces and classrooms for courses in healthcare, information technology, and advanced manufacturing.
Students attending the center have been promised to receive a hands-on approach to career-focused curriculum and programming taught by University of Arkansas at Fort Smith faculty as an extension of the Western Arkansas Technical Center.
The donations from Mercy and Baptist will allow the school district to increase what they can do in the healthcare sciences wing and have first-class labs for Peak students, said FSPS Superintendent Dr. Terry Morwaski.
“There was a promise, a commitment to the community that we develop the labs to mirror the modern workplace with up-to-date equipment that will mirror the hospital environment. We will have the same equipment they would use if they were to go out into the workplace. That was obviously important to Mercy and to Baptist as well as to us,” Morwaski said.
Phase one programs at Peak will include two programs – licensed practical nursing and emergency medical responder, said Dr. Dr. Gary Udouj, FSPS director of career education and district innovation. In the future, certified nursing assistant and patient care technician programs will be added, he said.
“These are in demand jobs. In talking to hospitals and other healthcare providers, these are the positions they are needing,” Udouj said.
“We are excited to be partnering with Fort Smith Public Schools and Baptist Health to provide local students with the opportunity to learn more about health care,” said Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospital Fort Smith. “Health care workers are a vital part of all communities, and this innovative educational partnership will help strengthen our workforce and provide opportunities for students in the River Valley. It’s a tremendous honor to be involved with this initiative.”
He said it was important that Mercy and Baptist came together in the joint effort.
“We think it sends the right message that it is exciting to us and I think this entire community that we are all coming together,” Gehrig said. “To stand here today and to see that vision and that discussion become reality this fall has been an amazing journey. This represents what this community can do and can accomplish”
Kim Miller, president of Baptist Health Western Region, said there is a lot of excitement in the community about aligning with Mercy and Peak in a creative way that will impact many future generations.
“I see the Peak Innovation Center being able to provide for us additional healthcare workers in the future. Everyone knows there is a national shortage and the pandemic has only made that even more pronounced. The possibilities are endless,” she said.
Gehrig said the healthcare industry in Fort Smith needs help, and the talent needed is in the Fort Smith area.
“We have the talent right here in our backyard and we need to give them the tools they need to better serve this community,” he said.
The Healthcare Science pathway is a key anchor to programming at Peak for high school students and adult workers across the region, leading to concurrent credit, technical certificates, and in-demand career opportunities in the field, Udouj said. Through a partnership with the Western Arkansas Technical Center at the UAFS, Peak will offer concurrent credit training programs for 11th and 12th grade students in practical nursing and responsive medicine starting in August.
Students will graduate with their certifications and diplomas at the same time and able to start their career path immediately upon graduating high school, Udouj said.
In addition to serving regional high school students, the Peak Innovation Center may provide opportunities for adult and incumbent worker training at night and on weekends, a press release said.