Sharna Lewis and other graduates of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School's Certified Nursing Assistant Program receive their pins during the ceremony, a rite of passage for nursing candidates. (Courtesy of Heidi Markley Photography)
Sharna Lewis and other graduates of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School's Certified Nursing Assistant Program receive their pins during the ceremony, a rite of passage for nursing candidates. (Courtesy of Heidi Markley Photography)

Once they complete the certification process, a dozen District adult charter school graduates will become certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and enter an industry in desperate need of personnel just years after the pandemic exposed and exacerbated gaps in medical care citywide.

As the latest graduates of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School’s relatively new CNA program, some of these students carry with them experiences they said give them firsthand knowledge of what District residents experience when they enter the emergency room. 

Stacie Burrell, a Northeast mother of five and Academy of Hope CNA graduate, recounted such an instance when she and her daughter spent several hours in the emergency room at a significantly understaffed hospital. 

Burrell said, amid all the chaos, her daughter expressed gratitude that she was pursuing a career in the medical field. 

“I’m going to push beyond CNA status and do the training to become a registered nurse,” said Burrell, 47. 

“We’re the ones who take care of patients on a daily basis, from washing, feeding and listening to them,” she said. “Nurses go through a lot, like staying away from their families and bending over backwards [for patients and administrators] especially during COVID. They’re doing everything to make sure people are safe and healthy.” 

Experts continue to warn about a thinning nurse and doctor pipeline unable to meet hospital and patient demands at a time when, according to a survey conducted by staffing firm Incredible Health, one-in-three nurses plan to leave their role by the end of the year. Those who contemplate leaving the profession counted burnout and low pay among their primary reasons – themes that surfaced during a nurse strike at Howard University Hospital earlier this year. 

Academy of Hope’s CNA program, which has graduated 36 people since its 2018 inception, includes information technology and property management among its course offerings.  

CNA program enrollees, many of whom continue to work toward their high school diploma, enter a year-long program that combines classroom and clinical instruction along with nursing practice which culminates in the completion of an exam to obtain certification as a CNA. 

Over the years, Academy of Hope has incrementally expanded the number of slots, even as the pandemic complicated efforts to facilitate clinical training. 

The most recent data from the DC Board of Nursing has Academy of Hope’s pass rate among the highest of the District’s testing providers. 

Lecester Johnson, CEO of Academy of Hope, said part of the magic lies in the connection between students and industry leaders and the school’s penchant for providing a strong academic foundation. 

“We were looking for career pathways that enabled our students to enter employment immediately,” Johnson said. “Healthcare is a high-demand, low-barrier career field with potential for significant growth,” Johnson said. 

“Most of the adults we serve don’t have high school diplomas and that is an entry point into becoming a CNA,” she added. “With the shortage of healthcare workers, CNAs in particular, there’s a high demand for them in long-term care facilities as well as home support for seniors who are aging in place at home.” 

After a challenging year, Sharna Lewis said she’s ready to continue along her professional journey. Once she acquires certification, Lewis will build upon previous work experience that includes a stint as a medical assistant at Orthopedic & Wellness in Waldorf, Maryland. The last decade has primed her for her latest milestone and future advancements in the field. 

Lewis, a mother of two from Southeast, enrolled in Academy of Hope last spring and paused her studies in the fall to give birth. Once she re-enrolled in January, Lewis delved into her coursework and, with the encouragement of staff members, conquered her fear of tests. 

“The work was challenging but rewarding,” said Lewis, 29. “The hands-on training was the best part. They pushed us forward and helped us continue our journey to certification. The test was the hardest but with the training we received from our instructors, it got easy in the end.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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