School at Work
Jenifer Johnston, who works as an environmental associate in the emergency room at Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital, 3801 Spring St., is a recent graduate of the School at Work program. She helps prepare treatment rooms in the Emergency Care Center for the next patient. / Mark Hertzberg Mark Hertzberg

RACINE - After 16 years working in entry-level positions in the health care field, Audrey Swoops decided it was time to make some changes. Swoops, 52, had been thinking about ways to advance herself when she read about a new program being offered by her employer, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare-All Saints.

Called School at Work, the program is an on-site educational opportunity for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare associates in entry-level positions. It aims to improve employees' readiness both for further schooling and other career opportunities in the health care field, according to WFH. The eight-month program combines classroom work, online training and homework focusing on math, grammar, medical terminology, anatomy and physiology, and other subjects necessary for success in a health care career.

For Swoops, School at Work was a "truly amazing" experience.

"It opened me up to a lot of things I had forgotten about," said the Racine resident who currently works both as a unit assistant in WFH-AS' Emergency Care Center and as an information desk concierge at the Spring Street medical center.

The grammar studies, for example, have helped Swoops improve her communication and emailing skills, she said. And all of her School at Work experiences have bolstered her confidence for courses she is enrolled in at Gateway Technical College, working toward a medical assistant technical diploma.

"I even learned stuff to advance myself outside my job," she said.

School at Work has also been a boost for Jenifer Johnston of Sturtevant. Johnston, who recently earned her certification as a nursing assistant (CNA), has worked as an environmental services (housekeeping) associate in WFH-AS' Emergency Care Center for two years. Her ultimate goal is to get a nursing degree and pursue a career as an emergency room nurse. The 39-year-old said she enjoys working in the fast-paced atmosphere of the ER and appreciates the teamwork involved in caring for patients there.

School at Work, which she completed a few months ago, served as a great refresher for her math, English, medical terminology - and even typing - skills as she works her way toward nursing school, she said.

"It is a good stepping stone for the anatomy and physiology courses I'll need to take."

Both she and Swoops also praised the School at Work study materials, saying that they were easy to understand and "down-to-earth."

"Even if you think you can't do it - that you don't have it in you to go back to school, you should give it a try," said Swoops. "The books they give you break it down so that you can understand everything."

Johnston and Swoops were part of a group of about 20 associates - ranging in age from 23 to 58 - who participated in the first School at Work program offered through Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. It began in August 2010 and ran through March, according to Sarah Martinez, manager of cultural diversity with Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and a School at Work coach. The program, which was free to participants, was made available through a $20,000 grant provided by the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board, in collaboration with the Milwaukee Area Healthcare Alliance, and was offered at both WFH's All Saints location at its St. Joseph facility in Milwaukee.

Participants had to apply for acceptance into the program and needed recommendations from lead associates to qualify, Martinez said. They also had to pass an adult, basic education exam.

Overall, the program is a catalyst for change - one that helps people realize "I can do this," Martinez said. And the first group to earn its School at Work certificates is a good example of that attitude.

"They were so supportive of each other because they really wanted to see each other succeed," she said.

Wheaton Franciscan will offer School at Work again this year, but the healthcare organization is funding it this time around, and the program will be available to associates at three WFH hospitals in Iowa, instead of in Racine, Martinez said. School at Work may cycle back to the All Saints facilities eventually, she said.

Both Johnston and Swoops encourage any associate who gets the opportunity to participate in School at Work to do so. The program is not only worthwhile, but convenient, they said. Being able to attend the two hours of class time per week during work was a big plus, and the studying outside the classroom was not overwhelming.

Johnston, who has a daughter living at home, said she still had to do a bit of "juggling" to fit everything in, but it wasn't difficult. "I would do my homework in the library during my breaks and lunch times," she said. "The lady there got to know me pretty well."

The extra effort was definitely worth the end result, Johnston said.

"It is a great opportunity, she said.

"It's a push," said Swoops. "It will make you do something with yourself."


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