Not every school district is lucky enough to have a world-class university in its backyard. And not every district has a board and administration that look for new and exciting ways to challenge students. But when these two happenstances collide, as they do in Piscataway, exciting programs like the Piscataway High School (PHS)-Rutgers BioMedical Program are born, and students win.

The large number of Piscataway students interested in health careers drove the need for advanced anatomy courses at PHS. Reaching out to Rutgers University to build a partnership seemed a natural fit – the district and university already shared a strong connection. Yearly participation in Rutgers’ Waksman Student Scholars Program (WSSP) allowed PHS students and their teachers to conduct authentic research with Waksman scientists in molecular biology and bioinformatics. PHS also offered Rutgers Expository Writing for college credit to students who meet course requirements. And importantly, 400 Piscataway students had been welcomed into the Rutgers Future Scholars Program, where academically ambitious students from less advantaged households can earn a full-tuition scholarship to the university.

In partnership with the Rutgers University School of Health Science Careers, the three-year-old BioMedical Career Pathways Program was built to offer PHS juniors and seniors college-level learning during their regular school day. This prepares students for multiple health careers through a core curriculum emphasizing science, communication, and the human and organizational sides of health care. Students follow Rutgers’ curriculum, take final assessments through Rutgers, and have the opportunity to – along with high school credits – earn up to 14 Rutgers University credits to apply toward a Rutgers degree or to transfer to other colleges and universities.

And the program is wildly popular. It began with 40 students, and in just three years, has grown to 90 students.

BioMedical Program During the first year of the BioMedical Program, juniors enroll in Anatomy and Physiology I and Dynamics for Healthcare in Society. During the second year, students enroll in Anatomy and Physiology II for Health Science Careers. Students are required to complete a minimum of 10 hours of shadowing a practicing clinician each year they participate in the program.

To ensure students with strong interest in medical science are prepared for the rigors of the BioMedical Program, students fulfill prerequisites in freshman and sophomore years, but preparation actually begins in middle school.

Middle School Project HealthLinks For the past 10 years, Piscataway has taken part in Project HealthLinks, an initiative in partnership with Raritan Valley Links, an organization of minority health care professionals, which introduces minority middle schools students to medical careers. The HealthLinks “interns” take field trips, explore health care policy, career challenges and rewards, to build an understanding of educational requirements for health care professions.

The BioMedical Team Credit for bringing this program to Piscataway High School begins with the Piscataway Board of Education, which encourages and supports the administration in outside-the-box thinking in researching and developing curriculum opportunities. The team that brought the BioMedical Program to fruition is comprised of PHS Science Department Chair Gita Manchanda, PHS Principal Jason Lester, and Superintendent of Schools Teresa Rafferty. The Piscataway teachers involved in the program, Dr. John Murphy, Ms. Leslie Wilson, Dr. Craig Lollin, and Dr. Lisa Szeto, are all certified as Rutgers adjunct professors.

In October, the program was recognized with the 2016 School Leader award, which honors New Jersey school districts that improve student learning through unique educational efforts. Programs are judged based on their level of innovation, how well they meet the specific needs of students, the relationship of the program to the state’s curriculum standards, and program results.

“We are incredibly proud of our PHS students who challenge themselves with high-level learning,” said Ms. Rafferty. “And we are equally proud to be a school district led by a board that encourages and supports all efforts to ensure a depth and breadth of educational offerings for all of our students.”

Judy Palermo is public information officer/webmaster at the Piscataway school district.