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$62M statewide health care high school proposed for Demopolis

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – In an effort to address the growing shortage of health care workers in Alabama, Gov. Kay Ivey announced during her state of the state address this month a proposal to create a statewide health care-focused public high school in the west Alabama town of Demopolis. 

The residential school would accept 9-12th grade students, offer a varied curriculum of science, technology, engineering and mathematics and health care-based courses, and operate in partnership with Whitfield Regional Hospital, to which it would be constructed adjacent to. 

Jordan Howard, senior policy advisor for the Alabama Department of Finance, told Alabama Daily News that the facility would have an estimated start-up cost of $62 million, with the funding coming from sought-after contributions “from the state, local jurisdictions in Demopolis, and private organizations.”

State Finance Director Bill Poole worked closely with the governor’s office on the project and told Alabama Daily News that the location was chosen for a variety of reasons. Among them, he said, was the location’s proximity to Whitfield Regional, the support of Demopolis’ leadership and community, the region’s partnerships with a number of large health systems such as the UAB Health System, as well as the need for trained health care workers in rural parts of the state.

“We know we have an acute shortage of health care workers across the state; that needs to be a target of ours, but it’s extremely acute in rural areas,” Poole said. 

“That location has a partnership with hospitals connected to large health systems; the Demopolis hospital is affiliated with UAB, we also have relationships with USA (Health), so the larger hospital systems in the state are affiliated with that regional hospital, which brings a lot of benefit.”

The specific location of the proposed health care school is less than 500 feet north of Whitfield Regional, and is the former home of the New Era Cap Company plant that closed down in 2010, costing the community 351 jobs. The facility, which before being the New Era plant was a Vanity Fair Corporation plant that closed down in 1998, sits on about ten acres.

In west Alabama’s Marengo County, Demopolis has just over 7,000 residents. Once a major industrial and retail hub in the region, its population steadily grew from a few hundred during the city’s founding in the early 18th century all the way to its peak of 7,700 in 1980.

Like much of the country, Demopolis has been economically affected by the 40-plus-year decline in manufacturing in the United States. With about 80,000 factories closing in the country between 2001 and 2016, which have largely been attributed to the abandonment of protectionist trade policies in the 1980s and onward, Demopolis experienced its own shuttering of manufacturing, including the closing of a Momentive chemical plant in 2011 that operated for 60 years, as well as the aforementioned New Era and Vanity Fair plants.

This new state project, however, could prove to be an economic boom for the community, with Demopolis Mayor Woody Collins saying that the proposed school could turn the city into “an educational mecca” for the region and the state.

Collins told Alabama Daily News that although the project had been worked on behind the scenes for years, the official announcement had him “like a giddy school kid” upon hearing it announced publicly for the first time.

“We were fortunate enough to be the ones to host this endeavour, but this is not about Demopolis, this is not about west central Alabama, this is about the entire state of Alabama,” Collins said. 

“This entire state is lacking in health care workers, and this is going to educate them and get them started at a young age, and they will spread out to all four corners of this state… I’m just so excited to be a small part of it.”

Collins explained that as partners in the state project, the city donated the land to be used for the school’s construction, and will aid in the demolition of the former plant and cleanup.

That willingness to partner in the project, Poole said, was another major factor in choosing the school’s location.

“We wanted a community that would offer active support, (and it) became very clear that Demopolis as a community was prepared to donate property, enable other partnerships that would facilitate a successful outcome here,” Poole said. “We definitely were looking for a rural setting, but we looked across the state based upon those factors, and Demopolis was selected as the preferred site.”

Another reason for Demopolis being chosen, Poole explained, was its relative proximity to major universities, as well as the partnerships such proximity could facilitate.

“We also wanted proximity and partnership with two and four-year universities in an approximate area; we have community college assets that are aligned to be a stakeholder and a partner as it relates to credentialing (the) workforce,” Poole said. 

“We also have two four-year institutions; University of West Alabama (and) University of Alabama are in the region, and UAB obviously is a connected and involved health care system also not far from that location. We wanted a physical footprint with capacity to support the new campus adjacent to a hospital facility, (and) we really want these students to have hands-on, clinical opportunities, and that is facilitated in this setting a little easier than dropping it in a very dense, urban setting.”

Bob Shepard, media specialist with the UAB, told Alabama Daily News that details on the partnership between the health system and the state would be forthcoming.

Poole and Ivey both hail from the Demopolis area; Poole being from Demopolis itself, and Ivey from Camden in neighboring Wilcox County. The significant investment in the region in recent years, including the $760 million highway project in West Alabama and the $77 million in grants for water and sewer infrastructure across the Black Belt region, was noted by Ivey’s Communication Director Gina Maiola as being significant for the area.

“This school, no doubt, will have positive impacts on the Black Belt,” Maiola told Alabama Daily News, “but it truly will be an asset to the entire state similar to our other destination magnets like the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering and the Alabama School of Math and Science.”

The facility will take several years to open according to Poole, would house 400 students total – 100 per grade – and will be open to students from across the state. While details on the project are subject to change, Poole said that those behind the project want to move “as quickly as possible” as to face the health care workforce shortage head-on.

“The objective is to produce graduates who are ready to go directly into the workforce so they could be nurses, (licensed vocational nurse), working in nursing homes, hospitals, physicians offices… that’s where the most acute shortage is, and it’s most acute in rural areas,” Poole said. 

“So again, adding this in a rural area aims at a statewide problem; it serves the entire state, but it also recognizes that some of the most acute challenges are in fact in rural areas.”

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