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Nursing program returning to Somerset County Education Center

September 20, 2018

Somerset County residents will soon have a state-of-the-art nursing program in their backyard.

Clarion University signed a five-year lease agreement with the Somerset County commissioners to lease space at the Somerset County Education Center with a goal of having the first class of nursing students begin in the fall 2019 semester. The associate of science in nursing degree program will be offered in partnership with Pennsylvania Highlands Community College, which will offer general studies, and Somerset Hospital, which will offer clinical work. The lease agreement was approved at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.

Debra Sobina, assistant dean of the College of Health and Human Services, explained that the lease had to be in place before the college could apply for approval from the Middle States Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing and the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing. Clarion also has a program in Venango.

“This area is so similar to Venango it seemed like a perfect fit,” she said.

The county has been without a nursing program since Allegany College of Maryland announced in January 2017 that it would no longer offer classes at the Somerset County Education Center in Somerset Township. ACM provides other classes at the Georgian Place in Somerset but not nursing. Since then the Somerset County Foundation for Higher Education and local lawmakers have been working to find a program.

“Ever since ACM left we still continue to hear about the need for a nursing program,” Commissioner Gerald Walker said.

Sobina said Penn Highlands will offer general education and support classes while Somerset Hospital will be the lead clinical partner. Students can become registered nurses after completing the two-year program and passing the state exam. Clarion’s program had above-average pass rates of 100 percent in 2016 and 94 percent in 2017. The 2015 national average was 84.53 percent.

The renovations include a state-of-the-art clinical laboratory. It will include a full simulation room, a nursing lab and a skills lab.

Somerset Hospital covers a variety of nursing specialties, including emergency room, operating room, home health and other nursing specialties such as medical-surgical and pediatrics. Hospital Vice President Suellen Lichtenfels said the hospital had a difficult time finding nurses after ACM ended its program. She said they had to use traveling agency nurses to fill shifts. She said it will be a huge benefit to have the clinical rotations in Somerset and will help the hospital with recruiting.

“By having a program we can select the cream of the crop and convince them to stay in Somerset,” she said.

It will also help other agencies seeking nurses. Commissioner John Vatavuk said it took about a year to fill a nursing position at the Area Agency on Aging.

Commissioner Pat Terlingo said the agreement goes beyond the partnerships.

“It is about the kids, and we really have to look at that angle,” he said. “We need to do anything we can do to keep some kids in this county that they don’t have to go away somewhere.”

Foundation co-chairwoman Linda Fetterolf said she can envision distance learning and dual enrollment opportunities for county students.

“My goal has always been to have postsecondary education for the people in Somerset,” she said. “I can’t thank Clarion enough for coming and filling that void. They have been amazing to work with.”

Although the nursing program is scheduled to begin next year, Clarion will offer individual classes, such as Introduction to Professional Nursing and Comprehensive Treatment of Chemical Dependency, this fall. High school students can take advantage of dual enrollment to begin a nursing education before completing high school. Once students complete the program and pass the licensure exam, they can begin working in the nursing specialty of their choice or continue to Clarion’s online RN-to-Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

“I can see people getting bachelor’s degrees right here in Somerset,” Fetterolf said.

Penn Highlands Vice President of Student Services Trish Corle said that Penn Highlands already works with Conemaugh School of Nursing to provide prerequisite classes and general education courses for Conemaugh’s program. She said the two schools are still working out the details of the arrangement.

“Clarion recognizes that it makes sense to have a partner established there who can provide some of the general education courses for their students,” she said. “I think it is a positive move for both Clarion and Penn Highlands for the benefit of the community.”

Corle said Penn Highlands and other community colleges partner extensively with other educational institutions and businesses.

“Anytime we can be a part of anything positive in one of the communities we serve, we want to take that opportunity to be involved,” she said.

Foundation co-chairwoman Michele Beener said that state Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, state Sen. Pat Stefano and Gov. Tom Wolf worked hard to secure funding. The foundation receives $350,000 from the state budget each year. She also said that original board members Fetterolf, and the late George Cook and Peggy Ogle, worked hard to start the foundation to support local students. She said 714 registered nurses have gone through the Somerset program, and nearly all of them received foundation support.

“So proud to have a school to continue that legacy,” she said.

The state money will be used for renovations and student scholarships. Both Stefano and Metzgar said they had to work hard to keep the $350,000 line item in the budget.

“When the prior institution unexpectedly announced they would be leaving Somerset County without a bachelor degree nursing program, I felt obligated to take action,” Metzgar said. “I am pleased to work with Stefano and the governor to make sure the funding was available.”

Metzgar said he had to promise that a program was coming to keep the funding in the budget. He said he was happy with Clarion’s commitment after the previous college “took the equipment off the wall and left.”

“I think this is going to be a better program with more participation and better results,” he said.

Stefano said he is excited the program will help “world-class medical institutions” in Somerset County, and he was proud to fight for the funding.

“The last couple of years it was extremely difficult, and we had to fight hard for rural Pennsylvania,” he said.

The lease is for $1,281 per month for five years and started Sept. 1. Walker said the agreement fills the open space at the center and brings it close to self-sufficiency.

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