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Since early last year, 20 nursing students have worked nights and weekends toward their associate degrees at Harper College, in Palatine, Ill. They are part of a new program made possible by a two-year grant from the state and two area hospitals.

A single instructor teaches the students in lectures -- with the help of an adjunct in labs and during clinical training. Administrators determined that hiring one instructor to work with students would provide consistency to the program, help the student retention rate and fit the "learning style" of working adults, said Phil Burdick, a Harper spokesman.

But that arrangement has irked a handful of Harper's nursing school faculty, who told trustees last month that the students in this cohort aren't receiving the same level of instruction as their peers outside the program.

“These students aren’t getting the benefit of each faculty member's area of expertise,” said Carole Bomba, an associate professor of nursing at the community college. “One person can’t possibly be qualified to teach critical care nursing, surgical nursing and pediatrics. It’s like asking a high school teacher to teach algebra, biology, French and geography.” 

Nursing instructors said they are concerned about how the students' experiences are preparing them for the profession. Regular nursing students at Harper spend time in hospitals during the week for clinical training. But because those in the cohort group work during the day at the two sponsoring hospitals, much of their clinical immersion comes on the weekend. Dale Ford, a nursing school professor, said it is hard to replicate the weekday hospital atmosphere for these students.

Bomba said the group spends about eight hours in the classroom on Fridays, which she considers too long in one session to allow for serious learning. And both instructors said they are concerned that students in the new program are being tested differently from their counterparts outside it.

“Our major concern is consistency and safeguarding the public," Ford said. "Anyone who graduates from our program should be comparable.”

Bomba said she and other nursing instructors are also concerned about limiting the program to employees of the two hospitals that are providing grant money. She said she would like to see slots opened up to others in the community.

Nursing instructors say they wanted the program to begin in the fall, instead of after the new year. That would have enabled professors to teach a subject to the general student body during the morning and add sessions in the afternoon and evening for the cohort group, Bomba said. The proposal was turned down by administrators, she added.

Vickie Gukenberger, a Harper College dean who is in charge of the cohort program, could not be reached for comment over several days. The college is on summer break. Burdick, the Harper spokesman, said because the idea of the program is to increase the number of nurses in the state, the college had to think about ways of structuring the program that best fit the students' schedules.

“We’re not going to make program decisions based on the comfort level of faculty members," Burdick said. "We need to respond to the changing needs of our business and of working adult students.

“It’s unfortunate [faculty members] feel this way,” Burdick added. “It’s an innovative teaching program that requires new methods. Sometimes that upsets the status quo. We wouldn’t compromise quality in the name of expediency.”

Burdick said all of the cohort students, who are set to graduate in December, have passed the licensing test for practicing nurses that the state administers. "The bottom line is that these students are passing the same licensing tests as all of our nursing students," he said.

Michael Harkins, president of the Harper College Faculty Senate, said he trusts the nursing faculty when it comes to deciding what instruction students need. “They know it better than anyone else," he said. "They’ve trained, they have Ph.D.s, they’ve been in the hospitals."

Burdick said a rift between nursing faculty and administrators started last year when college officials passed over a potential instructor whom several nursing school faculty had endorsed and hired another candidate.

Nursing instructors said this isn't a political issue. “We're not disgruntled, upset people trying to make the program go away," Bomba said. "We want it to be educationally sound. Otherwise, it deteriorates the entire reputation of the school.”

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