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Nurses head back to school

RNs are flocking to St. Petersburg College, where a fast-track program ends in a bachelor's degree.

By TERRI BRYCE REEVES, Times Correspondent
Published November 4, 2007

Tammy Garcia, right, checks on the condition of her patient Patricia Weiss at Mease Countryside Hospital. Garcia, a clinical nurse leader at the hospital, has been a nurse for six years.
[Atoyia Deans | Times]

Aging and retiring baby boomers. New procedures and the demand to use them. Scary staph infections.

It's enough to make you sick - and a dire shortage of nurses doesn't make it any easier for patients or the hospitals that treat them.

"Virtually every hospital in the state of Florida is experiencing nursing vacancies," said Martha DeCastro, vice president for nursing with the Florida Hospital Association.

And it could get worse.

The Florida Center for Nursing expects Florida's demand for nurses to grow by nearly one-quarter through 2014. Moreover, it notes that about 40 percent of nurses are 51 or older, so count on a large wave of retirements, too.

But take heart: Help appears to be on the way.

St. Petersburg College is seeing a surge in enrollment in its RN to B.S.N. program, which puts registered nurses with associate's degrees on a fast track to bachelor's degrees and better, more useful skill sets.

With 388 students, the program's fall enrollment is up 28 percent from the same time last year. And the number of classes nursing students are taking has risen 51 percent since the same period in 2006.

That's good news, said officials for BayCare Health System, which operates nine Tampa Bay area hospitals.

"I'm not surprised, and we are very excited because we highly encourage our employees to go back to school and improve their skills," said Sandra Cassity, BayCare's director of educational services. "Increased skill sets will directly impact the outcome for the patients."

Pam Callaway, BayCare's manager of regional recruitment, agreed.

"It also benefits the nurses; we thrive on professional development," she said.

Callaway believes positive media messages, along with idealism inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks, have helped guide people back to the nursing profession.

St. Petersburg College administrators say it's their convenient online classes, the quality of the faculty and reasonably priced tuition that is driving students to stay in Pinellas and learn.

"Our fees are considerably lower than most universities," said Dr. Tom Furlong, senior vice president of Baccalaureate Programs and University Partnerships. "Tuition here is about 30 percent less."

Fifteen baccalaureate degrees are offered through the college, with two more added in January. The nursing program is second only in size to the college of education.

The quality of the teaching staff is another draw, said SPC Dean of Nursing Jean Wortock.

"All of our seven full-time faculty have Ph.D.s in nursing," she said. "We've made a commitment to quality nursing education."

The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, as well as two national associations - the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission and the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education - have accredited the college's B.S.N. program.

Higher education usually correlates with better pay, but Wortock doesn't believe that's the primary motivator for most students.

"Most nurses want to know more," she said. "They want to provide better and safer care for patients."

The nursing classes are offered online. Those who like a more intimate classroom setting can take classes at the SPC Caruth Health Education Center in Pinellas Park. Practicum classes can be taken at whatever venue the student chooses.

Typically, students looking to get a baccalaureate degree in nursing are in their 30s, have worked in the field for about 10 years and arecurrently licensed registered nurses. Often they work full time in a school, hospital, doctor's office, surgical center or public health department.

Normally, the program takes five semesters to complete, with students taking nine to 11 credits each semester.

The B.S.N. program began in the fall of 2002 with 65 students; the first graduates walked in the spring of 2004. To date, 260 have graduated with a bachelor's degree.

Tammy Garcia received her associate's and bachelor's in nursing from St. Petersburg College - both while working full time. Eventually she earned a master's and now works at Mease Countryside Hospital as a clinical nurse leader, where she says she mentors other nurses, collaborates with doctors, communicates with interdisciplinary teams and has the time to "kick up the level of quality patient care."

She is also an adjunct faculty member, teaching an online class for the B.S.N. program.

"I love it," she said. "It's wonderful knowing you are helping nurses that are going to go out and help others."

Times correspondent Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at


RN to B.S.N.

A new nursing cohort will begin in January at St. Petersburg College. For more information on the RN to B.S.N. program, call Jean Wortock at (727) 341-3640.

[Last modified November 3, 2007, 21:08:22]

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