SAW Program Builds Employees' Confidence for College

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , July 13, 2009

Perhaps the most critical components in the success of SAW, Jones says, is the top-to-bottom support of the hospital leadership, and the decision to conduct the two-hours-a-week classes on hospital grounds immediately after the employees' shift is completed.

"If you let them get home, that's it. Lights out. Nothing is happening," Jones says. "They are surrounded by everything and anything that can distract them from their studies. I believe that piece is really what makes this model work. They are in a different environment at work. They clock out and come upstairs to class. There are no gaps."

Even with "no gaps," getting employee-students to show up for class isn't easy because of any number of problems outside of work. If one of the students is absent, Jones will stop class and find out where they are. When Jones learned that one student was severely ill, she went to the student's home with her homework. One student was "living in and out of her car," so Jones secured a two-year rent subsidy. One man had amassed more than $10,000 in motor vehicle fines because his license plate had been stolen. Jones went to court with the man to get the tickets resolved.

St. Anthony's SAW is funded by a $130,000 grant, half of which comes from the hospital's foundation, and the remaining money is from two Chicago-area organizations. It seems like money well spent.

These are exactly the kinds of targeted grants that should be encouraged, because they're not just throwing money at a problem, they're designed to succeed. First, the talent pool has already cleared the first hurdle, merely by having a job. If you've got a job, you've got enough ambition to get out of bed every day. Second, the hospital screens a pool of applicants to determine the best candidates, thus furthering the chances for success. Then, the program director aggressively insists on attendance and compliance from the students, working to ensure they get their preparatory work completed while instilling confidence.

On Aug. 13, Jones says, St. Anthony is planning a SAW graduation ceremony and a reception. CEO Guy Medaglia and other hospital leaders will be there too. Jones wants to invite the foundations that funded the grant, and she wants some local politicians to come too, so they can see a successful program up close and personal.

Of course, the guests of honor will be the 18 SAW students. "They are really excited about that," Jones says, "because it looked like a place they could never enter."

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John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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