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St. Alexius' nursing school gets temporary reprieve in effort to stay open

St. Alexius' nursing school gets temporary reprieve in effort to stay open

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ST. LOUIS — A state board is considering shutting down St. Alexius Hospital’s nursing school after a review found high employee turnover, financial issues and outdated facilities.

The Missouri State Board of Nursing planned to hold a hearing last week to decide whether to take the next step toward shuttering the school, but postponed the meeting.

“More time, is what we really are hoping for,” said Raishelle Willis, the interim program administrator for the Lutheran School of Nursing. “More time to get things right … and prove that overall we are financially stable.”

The school is part of St. Alexius Hospital, a 190-bed south St. Louis institution that has struggled financially. The school, which is more than 120 years old, has come under scrutiny in recent years following a dip in test scores. It has not been able to admit new students since January.

At full enrollment, the school would have about 120 students on campus, Willis said. Right now it has 82. Of those, 14 students live on campus in the school’s dormitories.

Many of the school’s students have degrees or jobs in other industries, and have decided to transition to nursing.

“We’re all coming from different phases of life,” said Ciara Jackson, a student at the Lutheran School of Nursing.

Jackson, a 31-year-old mother of two, sat with her classmates Cierra Williams, 19, and Kelly DeRossett, 51, at a breakfast gathering at the school Friday morning. It was the last day of exams, and students were about to take a pharmacology test.

Williams started the program the year after she graduated high school. She said she saw it as the fastest way to advance her career, and work toward her goal of becoming a travel nurse.

DeRossett, on the other hand, is in the process of switching careers. She said she wanted to become a nurse, but did not want to spend another three years in school. The Lutheran School of Nursing offered a quicker option, and for less money than other programs, she said.

Students can go through the whole program for $24,000, according the Willis, the interim program administrator. The school offers a diploma program, which is far less common than a bachelor’s or associate’s degree program, and takes less time, she said. Students can complete it in roughly two years — less if they have already taken some general education courses.

“We attract a lot of nontraditional students,” Willis said. “We’ve had students that work in bars, we’ve had students that are auto mechanics.”

In 2015 and 2016, the school’s pass rate on the National Council Licensure Examination dipped to 79% and 78%, respectively, below the 80% rate required for registered professional nursing schools.

The school was placed on “conditional approval status,” and was able to raise its scores in 2017 and 2018.

Nursing board staff visited the school in September 2019, and in a report detailed concerns with finances, faculty turnover and substandard facilities.

“Interviews with students and faculty indicate high level of anxiety about pending faculty/personnel changes and great anticipation by faculty who will lose their jobs,” the report says.

The report characterized the school as a “rather chaotic environment for teaching and learning.”

At one of the school’s buildings, known as the Texas Campus, nursing board staff described mold and pest issues.

The nursing school vacated the Texas Campus in the fall, and moved its simulation lab and skills lab to a different building.

A few months later, on Dec. 31, St. Alexius and its owner, Americore Holdings, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.

On Feb. 18, the institution’s leadership was overhauled: hospital officials announced at a meeting with employees that emergency room director Sonny Saggar would take over as the hospital’s CEO.

Two days later, a bankruptcy court judge approved the appointment of a trustee to run Americore, a relatively rare move for a Chapter 11 case.

The state nursing board planned to hold a meeting on Feb. 26 in Jefferson City to hear from school administrators about the steps they have taken, and plan to take, toward addressing the board’s concerns. The board would determine whether it should file a complaint with the Administrative Hearing Commission, the next step toward withdrawing the school’s approval to operate.

The state nursing board granted the school a continuance on Feb. 25, pushing back the date of a hearing. It had not set a new date as of Friday afternoon.

A spokeswoman said in an email that the school had requested the continuance, and that the board had granted it because of scheduling conflicts with witnesses.

Willis said that the school has been working to address the board’s concerns. It made improvements to the heating system and created a faculty committee, among other things.

“Now that we have the trustee, whose job is to stabilize the hospital and the nursing school financially, we’re hoping that they give us more time,” Willis said.

Ahead of the Feb. 26 hearing, at least four public officials submitted letters in support of the Lutheran School of Nursing, including St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

“The school and the hospital are now both operating under financial control of a court-appointed Trustee, who will make sound decisions,” Krewson’s letter says.

The board also received letters from state Rep. Donna Baringer, city Alderman Joe Vaccaro and Alderman Cara Spencer, whose ward includes St. Alexius and the Lutheran School of Nursing.

“Our school is a school of second chances,” said Frenita Hall-Brewer, a nurse educator and clinical instructor. “We just got to weather the storm.”

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