ST. PAUL — Supporters of a Rochester program that helps train low-income students for careers in healthcare warned lawmakers on Wednesday that without state support, the program may need to close.
"Without (the money), to be honest, we will need to take this program apart come July 1 and the best program we've got in the state may not exist," said Randy Johnson, executive director of Workforce Development, Inc.
The request for help centers around a program called "Bridges to Healthcare." It is a collaboration of Hawthorne Education Center, Rochester Community and Technical College and Workforce Development, Inc. Approximately 250 people participate in the program in a year and there is a waiting list to get in. Of those who enroll, more than two-thirds are people of color. A majority of those in the program are also first-generation college students.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, and Rep. Duane Sauke, DFL-Rochester, have each introduced bills seeking $720,000 in state funding over two years for the program. Both bills received a hearing on Wednesday — one before a Senate committee and the other in a House committee.
Nadine Holthaus, program manager at Hawthorne Education Center, said the Bridges to Healthcare Program offers a wide range of support to help students meet their goals. It begins with assessing whether students have the basic reading, writing and math skills needed for the program. If not, they can sign up for adult basic education classes at the center. Most students start by getting their nursing assistant certification. That allows them to work and continue taking classes. They can then take Rochester Community and Technical College developmental reading and writing classes for free at the center.
"This allows them to try college courses, work out life barriers, figure out how to balance life, school and work in a supportive environment without incurring financial debt," Holthaus said.
Students can transfer up to 15 credits to RCTC earned from classes taken at the center. Students can pursue several career paths including advanced hospital nursing assistant, licensed practical nurse and administrative clinical assistant. Advisors and navigators work with students once they enroll at RCTC or Mayo School of Health Science to help them succeed in college. The program has an 85 percent graduation rate.
The major challenge has been finding money to fund the program. Johnson said his agency has to piece together funding from several sources. That has included relying on federal and state grants, along with funding from Rochester Public Schools, RCTC and Mayo Clinic. But Johnson said the problem with the competitive grant programs is they tend to favor new programs. That puts Bridges to Healthcare at a disadvantage.
"It needs sustainable to move forward. It's doing tremendous work in southeast Minnesota," Johnson told members of the Senate Jobs and Economic Growth Committee.
He delivered a similar message in testimony to the House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Committee. No votes were taken on the bills in either committee. Instead, they are being considered for inclusion in workforce development funding bills.
Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, urged his colleagues to support funding the program.
He added, "It's important to our city from the standpoint of giving our new immigrant population a pathway to a career and a good career."