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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Workforce training center in Chewelah would give internships to rural high schoolers

Lindsey Ruivivar of NEW Health and Jason Tapia, maintenance supervisor for the Chewelah School District, stand in the entryway of the old Jenkins Middle School building in Chewelah last month. They were discussing the potential of the facility to be used as a medical building and workforce training center for the region if NEW Health can find funding.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

CHEWELAH, Wash. – The Chewelah School District and a local health care provider want to create a training center that would host internships for rural high school students across northeast Washington.

The Regional Workforce Development Center aims to support 60 students a year from Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties.

Although the project is in early fundraising, it plans to transform Chewelah’s former middle school building to provide career training and expand health care services in the region. The goal is to give students experience and career paths that will help them stay in the community.

“We want a robust program that engages high school students in rural communities,” said NEW Health CEO Desiree Sweeney.

NEW Health, a nonprofit health care provider that serves the three counties north of Spokane, had workforce shortages even before the pandemic, Sweeney said.

So, in 2021 she launched a program called NEW Health University that provides on-the-job training for health care careers.

The program needs more physical space to expand, and NEW Health’s headquarters in Chewelah are already at capacity. Chewelah’s Jenkins Middle School is a perfect fit.

Named for Chewelah pioneer David P. Jenkins who donated the land it was built on a century ago, the middle school closed 10 years ago when it combined with the high school because of shrinking enrollment. The building has sat vacant ever since.

The school district and NEW Health have agreed to a mutually beneficial land swap.

NEW Health will move its administration offices, medical clinic and pharmacy into the old middle school. Then, the school district will move its offices and its alternative school to NEW Health’s current building, which is closer to the high school.

Quartzite Learning, the district’s hybrid K-12 school, has gained popularity since the pandemic and also needs more space, Superintendent Jason Perrins said.

While the rest of the building is vacant, the community continues to use the middle school’s 7,000 -square-foot gym for recreation. NEW Health plans to keep the gym open and use the remaining 30,000 square feet to house its offices, clinic and pharmacy, and to also open new dental and behavioral health clinics in addition to the workforce center, which will have labs and class space.

The internships would focus on health care, but also would include other industries like finance, human resources, information technology and marketing.

A $50,000 donation from health insurer Coordinated Care kick-started the fundraiser last fall. The goal is to raise $16.5 million for renovation and equipment costs.

Renovating the building will be more cost efficient compared to facilities NEW Health recently built in Colville and Newport, said NEW Health’s Chief Strategy Officer Lindsey Ruivivar.

The building structure is in good shape, school district Maintenance Supervisor Jason Tapia said. It mostly needs modernizing and energy efficiency upgrades.

Since Jenkins donated the land for education, this partnership would continue that legacy, Ruivivar said.

Beyond finding another purpose for the building, Perrins has an ambitious vision of giving every student an internship during their senior year so they have work experience by the time they graduate. This would involve expanding beyond NEW Health’s program and placing students with other local businesses.

By their senior year, Perrins said students already have learned basically everything they can from a classroom.

“Seniors are adults, really,” Perrins said. “They know how to read and write. They need to get out in the field and start using those skills.”

The high school already supports release time for students to work part time, but most of those are for basic service industry jobs. Perrins is hoping for something “a little more high-tech.”

“A lot of rural kids just don’t have experience,” Perrins said.

Most students graduating from Chewelah do not attend a four-year university, Perrins said. Some may attend community college or trade school, but many leave town looking for work and don’t return. So, showing them viable career pathways could help keep local talent in the community.

Last year, NEW Health University worked with Colville High School to start a pre-apprenticeship course that prepares students to enter a 12-month medical assistant apprenticeship immediately after graduation.

Maleah Danford was part of the first cohort. Her principal encouraged her to apply.

Danford was one of two students from the class to also land a part-time job with NEW Health. She started working at the Colville clinic during her senior year as a receptionist.

Although she wasn’t dealing directly with patients yet, working in the clinical environment helped orient her.

“It gave me the layout of how everything worked so I wouldn’t go in blindly,” Danford said.

When she graduated in May, she made a seamless transition to her formal apprenticeship and began regular medical assistant duties like taking blood draws and giving shots.

“I always wanted to go into the medical field,” Danford said. “I have had a blast doing all these things.”

She is on track to be a certified medical assistant this summer once she has logged 2,000 clinical hours.

“This opportunity for me being in high school working a regular job and to be able to get into a career that I wanted right out of high school has been an awesome experience,” Danford said.

Sweeney said many rural students don’t have the resources to go to college, and many students who would like to stay near their families don’t recognize all the opportunities available to them in their hometown.

While she was growing up in Springdale, Sweeney said adults told her she had to leave because there were no local jobs. When she came back decades later, she was surprised to see how many options there were.

At the same time, Sweeney said, it is important to help students access these careers.

“It’s our job to create opportunities for the next generation,” she said.

James Hanlon's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.