The High School Where Students Wear Scrubs

A Sacramento public high school blends work-based learning, medical science, and academics for a new generation of vocational education.

At Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School (HPHS), students wear scrubs to class. They use algebra to calculate dosages. They study books like The Hot Zone, a nonfiction thriller about Ebola. By the time they graduate, they know the difference between a phlebotomist and a pharmacist, and may have visited one at a local hospital.

High schools used to ask students to choose between career-focused and college-preparatory courses. In California, a strategy called Linked Learning blends both pathways together. State legislators have been so taken with the approach that they recently set aside $500 million to help schools adopt strategies like it.

Linked Learning makes a lot of sense for a field like health care, where most jobs require some kind of advanced training. At HPHS, which has used the strategy for a decade, not all graduates decide to pursue a health care career. But they all leave well informed about a growing sector that offers all kinds of good-paying jobs.

With its theme, uniform, and well-equipped, modern buildings, HPHS gets mistaken for a charter school. It's not: It's a public school that accepts students from all over the Sacramento area. "We've got straight As and straight Fs, and all of our students have the same opportunity to access the curriculum," says Marla Clayton Johnson, the school principal.

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.

It helps that the U.C. Davis Health System, one of the school's strongest partners, has created programs specifically for HPHS students. One program, called Pathways to Allied Health Careers, exposes students to careers they might never have thought of—like radiology technician or medical interpreter. It also helps to have Meltvedt on staff, acting as a single point of contact for employers.

Linked Learning doesn't create a straight line to a certain job. "The point of this is not to force kids to choose a career in ninth grade," says Gary Hoachlander, president of ConnectEd, a James Irvine Foundation-funded nonprofit that champions Linked Learning. The point, he says, is to engage students by showing them how their schoolwork applies to the real world.

HPHS has a 96 percent graduation rate, higher than the district's average of 85 percent. Almost all graduates plan to head directly to college, and about two-thirds say they want to pursue a career in health care.

But the school doesn't have any way to track whether alumni graduate from college or what jobs they end up taking. That frustrates Angela Avelar, the school counselor. Although she sits the senior class down in a computer lab and watches them apply to community college, she has no way of knowing who actually shows up for classes in the fall.

Despite their aspirations, many HPHS graduates aren't prepared for college. As of the 2012-2013 academic year, 40 percent of students were scoring "proficient" in reading and writing on state standardized tests, and just 10 percent were scoring "proficient" in math. Although all students take college-preparatory classes, not all students pass them, Avelar says.

Still, HPHS teachers and staff say many alumni have stayed in the health field. Some are wrapping up bachelor's degrees and thinking about applying to medical school. Others have found health care jobs locally that pay the bills as they pursue other dreams.

Avelar is close with a student who graduated three years ago and now works as a phlebotomist (a professional trained to draw blood) for Kaiser Permanente. "She really struggled in high school," Avelar says. "She couldn't pass the California high school exit exam—which is required to graduate—so she actually didn't graduate with her class." The former student is also raising a baby boy.

But she has steady job, she's taking classes at a community college, and she's working her way toward her goal of becoming a nurse. Although she struggled academically, she graduated equipped with a career goal and an education that will help her achieve it.

Next America's Education coverage is made possible in part by a grant from the New Venture Fund.

Libby Isenstein contributed to this article