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25 Years of School-to-Work Partnership between SLUHN and Bethlehem Schools
September 16, 2022

2002 STW participants, including Victoria Montero, on right, who went on to a long career at St. Luke’s, where she continues to work.

The innovative School-to-Work (STW) partnership between the St. Luke’s University Health Network and the Bethlehem Area School District (BASD) will be marking a quarter of a century of expanding learning and career opportunities for local students. Since the program was founded in 1997, it has offered nearly 400 local students an opportunity to sharpen personal communication skills while providing hands-on experience in the healthcare field. And for many of them, it’s led directly to successful careers which, in turn, helped to enrich St. Luke’s work force.

See video: https://vimeo.com/715746483/b0bc8dfc98

BASD Superintendent Joseph Roy described the program as “life-changing” for the English Language learner students. “The program helps students to develop English skills, explore career interests and, most important, to build confidence in themselves as they move beyond high school.”

His enthusiasm for the program is supported by the results: Since its inception, the participating students have a graduation rate of more than 90 percent, and many have found a solid career path in the health care industry.

One of them is Victoria Montero, manager of Health Equity Initiatives for the St. Luke’s University Health Network and executive director of the Hispanic Center of the Lehigh Valley. Montero joined the STW program when she was 17, after noting the level of confidence and poise previous students exhibited when they spoke at her high school to encourage students to apply.

“I was very shy and didn’t speak up much and I thought it would be good to push myself, so I applied to the program,” she said. “I went through it and was hired by St. Luke’s as an office assistant in the Community Health department, and I’ve been here 17 years. Now I oversee the School-to-Work program. That experience absolutely helped me find a career path in public health, and that’s what it does for many others too.”

The 25-year milestone is particularly significant, she said, since longstanding partnerships such as this are increasingly rare. “It’s an amazing partnership that has endured despite so many factors – funding issues, leadership changes at both the hospital network and on the school district level, for example. It really points to an unwavering commitment to support this program and continue to provide students this amazing, life-changing experience.”

Montero noted the importance of the support of St. Luke’s management team and personnel staff, as well as the leadership of Carol Kuplen, president of St. Luke’s University Hospital-Bethlehem and chief nursing officer for St. Luke’s University Health Network. Generous support was also provided by community partners such as PPL Electric, Just Born Quality Confections, Embassy Bank, the Two Rivers Health and Wellness Foundation, American Bank, the St. Luke’s Auxiliary Fund, and several private donors.

“I really want to thank them,” she said. “This program would not exist without them.

Engaging at-risk students

The STW program, she said, was developed to “engage at-risk students by encouraging them to remain in school by providing exposure to health care careers, support their attainment of English language fluency, and develop job-seeking and job-keeping skills.” The majority of the students are from economically disadvantaged families and are at high risk for absenteeism or from dropping out of school before graduation, Montero added.

The need for it was demonstrated through data collected through the BASD that indicated English Acquisition students who were not following an academic track were more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors linked to poor life outcomes: truancy, delinquency, unintended pregnancies, low academic achievement, and low attachment to school.

“Faced with this pressing issue, the school district sought a solution to help these students succeed in high school and to prepare them to obtain careers where they can earn wages above the federal poverty level – many of which require post-secondary degrees or professional certifications,” she said.

The district’s needs were in line with goals of the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, which addressed the national goals of improving education and making classroom experiences more relevant to future careers. They also dovetailed with St. Luke’s goals of supporting community engagement through local, state and national partnerships; meeting the needs of the surrounding community; diversifying their work force; and offering access to health care careers that provide strong income and advancement potential, Montero said.

The program is open to BASD students of all backgrounds who are learning English as their second language. The eligible students are recommended by BASD staff, must be in grades 10 through 12, and be able to speak English at a high-beginner or intermediate level. After their applications are reviewed and students are interviewed by St. Luke’s staff, a cohort of 16 to 18 students is selected each year to participate in the academic/career program, which combines a health-care focused English and science curriculum taught at Liberty High School.

Over the course of their 30-week academic year experience, they will visit more than 30 departments within the Fountain Hill location of St. Luke’s, including cardiology, maternity, emergency services, and physical therapy, as well as non-clinical areas, such as business services, accounting, media relations, and environmental and food services. For each technical or clinical area, hospital preceptors acquaint students with the duties and responsibilities of each role.

The goal, Montero says, is to expose students to as many components of the health care delivery system as possible so that they see the multiple employment opportunities open to them. Key to that is the participation of department leaders across the health care network who have demonstrated an extraordinary level of commitment to the students.

“They coach them, they mentor them, and when the students make their presentation at the end of the program, they celebrate them and all that they accomplished,” Montero said. “Many of these students don’t have that level of support at home, and you can see how important and meaningful it is to them.”

While many do decide to pursue a career in health care at St. Luke’s, others use the STW experience to realize that they would like to explore other fields. “We’ve seen many examples of how the program changed their personal and career path in life, even if it’s not in health care,” she said.

“I personally know how important and inspiring it was to have that support, that guidance and mentorship. Now I’m in a position to give back and continue to develop strategies to support youth in our community who were in the same situation I was in when I was 17. I will always be grateful to all those individuals who provided the coaching and the guidance I needed to become the professional I am today. They have been nothing short of amazing.”