05/02/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2012

"Growing Our Own" Corps of Nurses

Marion Barry has done it again --- he's helped everyone to miss his point by cloaking a nugget of truth in the hard, ugly shell of racially-tinged rhetoric. Mr. Barry made a comment about Filipino nurses that implied that these excellent professionals are taking jobs from D.C. residents. Not true! The truth is that the shortage of nurses and skilled health care workers is quite real, not only in this region but nationally and internationally. Also true is the plain fact that not enough D.C. residents have the education necessary to fill those jobs. Mr. Barry is right about the desirable goal of "growing our own" talented professionals, but wrong to pit racial groups against each other.

The solution is hardly to wage war on Filipino nurses. Filipino and other international nurses are not taking jobs away from otherwise-qualified D.C. residents. Mr. Barry's ill-considered racial rhetoric in describing the real problems of D.C. residents, particularly his constituents in Ward 8, gets in the way of honest exposition of the issues. The real problem is that, despite years of effort and millions of dollars devoted to school reform, too many students either do not graduate at all from high school locally, or if they do graduate, they lack the math, science, critical reading and writing skills that are essential to succeed in nursing licensure programs.

We know this from first-hand experience at Trinity Washington University where we started a Nursing Program in 2007. We started this program specifically to develop a pipeline for local residents to enter the nursing profession; as a former member of the board of the Washington Hospital Center, I became acutely aware of the nursing shortage among the health care institutions in the city.

Because Trinity enrolls more D.C. residents than any other private university in the nation, we decided that we could be part of the solution to the health care workforce challenge by creating a School of Nursing and Health Professions specifically targeting local residents to enter the health professions. (Trinity also offers programs in exercise science and health science, both with preparatory tracks for physical therapy, and in the fall, pending accreditation, we hope to offer an occupational therapy assistant program.) Nursing grew rapidly to become our single largest program with more than 200 majors enrolled and more than 300 students in pre-nursing, and about half of all of those students are D.C. residents.

The University of the District of Columbia certainly provides strong nursing education, as do the other major universities in the city. Mr. Barry is also wrong to imply that only U.D.C. is able to address the educational needs of D.C. residents. Trinity enrolls nearly 1,200 D.C. residents in undergraduate and graduate programs, and we are the only university offering a degree program in Ward 8. Our student body is more than 70 percent African-American and 20 percent Latina, with about 70 percent eligible for Pell Grants, so we are well aware of the issues of racism and classism that plague D.C. residents.

Certainly, the story of the D.C Public Schools is deeply entwined with the profoundly destructive legacy of historic racism, which has effectively guaranteed generations of diminished educational attainment for too many African American citizens. The well-documented black-white achievement gap in education in D.C. is, in part, a product of longstanding racist attitudes that, on the one hand, lower adult expectations for black student attainment generally, and, on the other hand, lead too many black youth to opt out of educational success as a "white" aspiration.

Many educational reformers decry the "soft racism" of lower expectations for impoverished black and Hispanic children who suffer egregious conditions of poverty, parental illiteracy, domestic and neighborhood violence. At a meeting on school reform last week, a well known local leader spoke passionately about the need to have a vision for the D.C. Schools that goes beyond "mere proficiency" to even higher levels of achievement because remediating the conditions that foster the black-white achievement gap will require consistently superior performance. Chancellor Kaya Henderson and her team understand the urgency of this issue and are putting solid curriculum reform plans in place that can move the needle on academic attainment considerably, but this will take time.

The D.C. Chamber of Commerce, the Brookings Institution, and other notable business and research organizations have clearly identified some of the chronic local conditions that keep D.C. residents out of the workforce: an adult illiteracy rate of about 36 percent; a sizeable population of young residents aged 16-24 who are not in school and not working; the continuing prevalence of high poverty rates and high rates of chronic disease in certain parts of the city, particularly east of the river. Improved educational opportunities for citizens of all ages --- not just those in traditional K-12 schools, but adult education as well --- are essential to make any impact on these problems.

To address some of these issues, just last week, Mayor Vincent Gray -- the most education-savvy mayor the city has had -- announced the "Raise DC" cradle-to-career initiative, a broad-based coalition of educators, school leaders, business executives and civic activists working together to create specific goals and solutions for improving educational outcomes in D.C. (I am a member of this group.)

To get more D.C. residents into the nursing pipeline and through the gateways for the burgeoning health care professions in all fields, we have to get serious about the expectations for math and science education at all levels. Nursing today is seriously rooted in excellence in math and science, and many other health professions have raised the bar in math and science abilities as well. Nursing is not a default choice for students who can't do pre-med; nursing is as rigorous as pre-med and the licensure requirements are formidable.

At Trinity, where we have an intensive program to ensure that freshmen become proficient in collegiate math, science, writing and critical reasoning, we find that too many students from our local public schools have extreme difficulty mastering the first level courses. A student who cannot complete calculus, chemistry, composition or critical reasoning courses successfully will not be admitted to the nursing program. We have voluminous data on the academic challenges that students from our local public schools bring to the college classroom, and in spite of extensive academic support programs, too many of our local students still struggle mightily to make-up for the prior 12 years of academic betrayal.

Trinity is deeply committed to the academic and professional success of our students, and we will continue to take a firm leadership position on the education of D.C. residents for entrance into nursing, the health care professions broadly, and many other fields. We won't give up in spite of the challenges our students face because of deficiencies in their prior academic preparation. We'll fix that.

But we also must be clear about the bottom line locally for long-term educational success and improvement of workforce opportunities for D.C. residents: to get more D.C. students into the nursing profession and other professions, we must hasten the pace of school reform to ensure greater success in the subsequent educational programs that the professions require. We certainly can, and should, "grow our own" health care professionals in this city, but we have to plant stronger seeds in richer soil if we really want these professionals to flourish here.