Nursing consortium attempts to reduce shortage of rural nurses

NEWPORT, AR (KAIT) – More remote areas around Arkansas have experienced a shortage of nurses, so a group of community colleges has joined together to address the need.

Eight two-year colleges created the Arkansas Rural Nursing Education Consortium, or ARNEC, in 2007. The Arkansas State University campus in Newport is part of this cooperative effort to create more Registered Nurses, or RNs, in rural areas. The students are approaching their nursing education in a novel way.

"I had to take the step, step number one, going to LPN school," Marcy Smith of Newport said, "and this is my second step is to get my RN."

Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, Smith spends five hours in a classroom at ASU-Newport.

"You can study and be a good nurse and pass your test, but you can also be a good mom and be a good wife," Smith said about balancing her priorities.

The classes stretch from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. two days a week, and she attends clinical rotations on the weekends. Her classes, however, are often led from a screen, as her teacher broadcasts live from one of the ARNEC sites.

"If we ask a question – they're from Ozarka which is in Melbourne, the teacher if she's lecturing from there – the camera will come to ASU-Newport," Smith said.

More than 200 students watch the interactive lectures at one time, taking notes and responding to questions through a complex video conferencing system. Each student entered the program to prepare for the RN licensing exam, the NCLEX-RN.

"It's convenient for people that have daytime jobs," Scott Cowell said, "and it has a very high success rate, over 90 percent pass rate on the NCLEX-RN."

Cowell is director of nursing at ASU-Newport. He is also a program chair for ARNEC, which began in 2007 to meet a growing demand for RNs in the state's rural areas.

"They attend classes twice a week in the evenings, and they generally do one day a week clinical rotations on the weekend," Cowell added about the program's flexibility.

The program also appeals to students who have yet to become Licensed Practical Nurses, like Chelsey Ballard.

"I already have all my (prerequisites) ready, so good to go," Ballard said.

Ballard will graduate from the LPN program at ASU-Newport in June. She says her next step is to enter ARNEC and earn her RN license.

"My ultimate goal is to be out there for people, work real hard," she added. "I want to get my Master's eventually, but, right now, I'm just going to do one step at a time."

The ARNEC program has also gained national attention recently. The Community College Futures Assembly nominated the program for an award. It was one of 10 national finalists for the Bellwether Award in the area of Workforce Development. It did not win, but ARNEC was chosen because of its cutting-edge approach that other colleges may want to copy.

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