Clayton Johnson estimates that about 60 percent of students enroll because they're interested in health care (usually they want to become doctors, nurses, or veterinarians). The rest enroll because they want to go to a small school, or because their parents push them, or because they've been asked to leave another high school in the district. Most students are Hispanic or African-American, and almost all come from low-income families.
The school is closely tied to two foundation-funded reform efforts that have swept the Sacramento City Unified School District. It was one of several small, themed high schools created in the early 2000s with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. And it was an early adopter of Linked Learning, a strategy the district embraced in 2009 with funding from the James Irvine Foundation
Before HPHS opened its doors—initially, as portable classrooms set up in a parking lot—regional health systems committed to joining the school's community-advisory board. They all committed to connecting students with job-shadowing, mentoring, and other work-based learning opportunities.
"We felt like it was a good investment to ensure that health care workforce needs are going to be met," says Laura Niznik Williams, assistant director of government and community relations at the University of California, Davis Health System, one of HPHS's strongest partners. The health system particularly wanted to work with a school that reflected Sacramento's diversity, she says.
Just like students in a career and technical education pathway at a regular high school, HPHS students take a sequence of career-focused courses. But the health care theme spreads beyond medical-science classes and into every academic class.
In her ninth and 12th grade English classes, Marsha Stanley still teaches classics like Romeo and Juliet. But she also teaches nonfiction like And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic, and poems written by doctors and patients. "I love the theme—it makes me feel like there's continuity to our classes," she says.
Periodically, HPHS students work on projects that span all their classes, like a ninth-grade unit on infectious diseases. The school doesn't offer any remedial courses; instead, all required academic courses meet University of California and California State University admissions requirements.
Connecting high school students with work experience in the health care field isn't easy. There aren't many internship opportunities appropriate for teenagers. To volunteer at a hospital or clinic, students have to prove they've had a full set of vaccinations, and HPHS families can struggle to dig up the necessary paperwork.
"So we're quite creative," says Deborah Meltvedt, the school's work-based-learning coordinator. She organizes "career days" throughout the year that bring health professionals to campus, arranges field trips, finds job-shadowing candidates, and interviews mentors.