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Proving its value: Scholarship links nursing program and local economy


An aging population.

A top-rated nursing program.

A city’s economic and cultural evolution.

Those three Rock County realities are now linked by one bond: A $1 million scholarship program designed to increase prosperity—and not just for its participants.

At the center of it all is Blackhawk Technical College’s nursing program, which has gained a reputation for its rigor and the quality of its graduates.

In the past three testing periods, 100 percent of Blackhawk Technical College’s nursing students passed the nursing boards, more commonly known as the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX.

That feat gave the college a No. 1 ranking, which it shared with other two- and four- year programs with a 100 percent pass rate.

BTC President Tracy Pierner can hardly contain himself when he talks about the numbers. If the listener doesn’t appear suitably impressed, Pierner will point to the numbers and say, “That’s No. 1 with the Stanfords and the UW-Madisons.”

That’s true. Although Blackhawk shares the No. 1 spot, it’s impressive when you consider that the ranking means the local program is:

  • First among 29 two-year and four-year nursing programs in the state.
  • First among 699 two-year programs in the country.
  • First among 1,184 two-year and four-year programs in the United States

High standards

It’s not just test results.

“We hear from our community partners that hire our graduates that our students are well-prepared when they enter the workplace,” said Deborah Pessoa, chairwoman of BTC’s nursing department. “Because we are a rigorous program, they have the skills and critical thinking abilities.”

It’s more complex than having students memorize anatomy and disease pathways.

“We can teach them the pathophysiology, but we know that people are very complex,” Pessoa said. “It’s not just the disease process that’s going on. It’s who do they have in their family that depends on them? What is their role outside of the health care setting?”

Meredith Aarud, vice president of clinical services at Cedar Crest, said she “absolutely” agrees that Blackhawk’s students are well-qualified.

She’s pleased with their “standards and skills,” their professionalism and their critical thinking.

Many of the students start work at Cedar Crest after taking nursing assistant courses and continue to work there as they pursue additional degrees.

“We have them for the entire journey,” Aarud said. “We know what we’re getting.”

About 75 percent of nursing staff come from Blackhawk Technical College, she said.

It’s telling that Cedar Crest has received five-star ratings from consumer websites and a rank of “high performing” from U.S. News and World Report.

Such ratings depend heavily on the skills, behavior and patient interaction of nursing staff.

“You have to have quality front-line staff,” Aarud said.

Rigorous process

Many of Blackhawk’s nursing courses use the “flipped classroom” model of teaching, which requires students to tackle new material first through readings, videos and other homework. Then, when they are in the classroom, the new material is reinforced and integrated into what they already know.

In Beth Strauss’ nursing pharmacology course, students must complete an online quiz to show they have read the material before getting a “pass to class.”

“It might be an open book test, but they only have 10 minutes to answer five questions, so they better know where that material is and be able to find it fast,” Strauss said with a grin.

It’s a system that seems to work.

On a recent Monday, Strauss’ students were able to answer her questions and give reasons for those answers.

“I always ask for reasons,” Strauss said. “It might not be the right reason, but they’ve got to have a reason.”

It’s all about developing critical thinking skills and considering all the facts about the patient and the situation.

The program’s reputation is such that community members have complained its standards are too high. Complaints include the low completion rate, high testing standards and the limited number of reentry options.

“Any nursing program that produces quality graduates is going to be difficult,” Pessoa said.

Most nursing programs have similar rules and outcomes, Pessoa said. Nationwide, about 50 percent of students make it through nursing programs. The completion rate at BTC is between 50 percent and 60 percent. Most programs require students to pass exams with an average of 75 percent or higher. BTC requires average test scores of 80 percent or higher.

It is rigorous, and it should be, Strauss said.

“Sure, if we set the bar here, students will reach it,” said Strauss putting her hand at shoulder height.

Then she raises her hand above her head.

“We’ve found that if we put the bar here, students will also reach it,” she said. “That’s what we want.”

Many of Blackhawk’s students are first-generation college students and face additional challenges that range from lack of income to lack of family support. Staff try to give these students the extra practical and academic support they need.

“The students here have everything riding on this,” Strauss said. “There’s a lot at stake.”

It’s heartbreaking, she said, but not everyone is cut out to be a nurse, she said.

Making the cut

In July, the Parker Foundation announced that it was donating $250,000 over a five-year period to help start the Nancy B. Parker Nursing Scholars Program.

The program was named after Nancy B. Parker for her lifelong contributions to and involvement with nursing activities, including serving on the board of trustees for what was then simply called Mercy Hospital.

During the next five years, Blackhawk Technical College officials will ask businesses and local health care systems to help raise another $500,000. If they can meet that goal, the Parker Foundation will donate an additional $250,000 to make it $1 million, thus creating a perpetual scholarship fund.

This fall, the first group of Nancy B. Parker Scholars started school.

Anna Swanson, 39, is one of 14 students picked for the honor.

Swanson first worked as a cosmetologist. But as a single mother of two, she needed additional part-time work to make ends meet.

She started working in the kitchen of Riverview Terrace, an assisted living facility in Beloit.

“The people who were training me for the job were high school friends of my son’s,” Swanson said. “It was sort of like, ‘Oh, how low can you get.’”

But she liked the job and the residents and decided to become a nursing assistant.

She took courses at Blackhawk and passed the certification exam.

Swanson has worked in other health care settings, but long-term care is where her heart is.

“When I was gone, I really missed the Terrace and its residents,” Swanson said. “Being there doesn’t feel like being at work.”

Now she’s pursuing a nursing degree.

When asked what the scholarship meant to her, she gave a huge sigh and said, “Oh, it helps so much.”

That was the universal response from scholarship students. Most are working. Many have families. And everyone is in a position where a single speed bump—failure of child care, lack of money for books, an unexpected medical bill, a car that needs repairs—could completely derail their plans.

Community impact

The Parker Foundation designed the scholarship to do more than help nurses get through school, said George S. Parker, son of the late Nancy B. Parker.

Scholarship criteria include work or a paid internship in long-term or hospice care and—this is crucial—a commitment to look for work in Green and Rock counties.

When skilled nursing professionals make Rock and Green counties their homes, the quality of health care services in the local area improve and the whole area benefits economically, Parker wrote in an email to The Gazette.

Could such a formula work?

Certainly, said Russ Kashian, UW-Whitewater professor of economics.

“…These are developments that positively improve the quality of life in a community,” Kashian wrote in an email to the Gazette. “Where people choose to live is based on many factors, one of which is opportunity.”

This kind of scholarship is a statement about the community commitment—and attitude—about the future, Kashian said.

“If people see a vibrant community that offers hospitals, clinics and other services, they will have a positive view of the region,” Kashian wrote. “This will hold the dollars in the community for two reasons. One, they will reside in that community, and, two, they will spend their health care dollars in the community.”

And quality health care is going to be an increasingly important factor in where people chose to live. There are now more Americans over 65 than any other time in history, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Janesville Economic Development Director Gale Price echoed Kashin’s comments and said the scholarships could help retain talent in the community.

“Many young professionals can go wherever they want because that’s what the market allows them to do,” said Price.

Many graduates will start their professional lives in the community.

“Once people get settled in, they may decide that this is the place where they want to be,” Price said. “It allows us to start to diminish or eliminate the out migration of talent.”

Local legislators strengthen support for marijuana legalization

Don Vruwink

Several local lawmakers have stiffened their support for legalizing marijuana after the Tuesday passage of all marijuana advisory referendums statewide, including Rock County.

Nearly 1 million Wisconsinites voted in favor of legalizing recreational or medical marijuana through advisory referendums in 16 counties—liberal and conservative alike—and two cities. All soared to victory with between 60 percent and 90 percent of votes.

A handful of area legislators told The Gazette in August they were awaiting the results of the Rock County referendum to mold their legislative stances on marijuana. Last week, some said Tuesday’s results sent a message to lawmakers.

State Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said “it’s definitely time to move forward” with a medical marijuana bill in the Legislature, and she would be willing to be a co-sponsor. That comes after she told The Gazette in August she was in the middle of the road on marijuana and would let Tuesday’s vote sway her.

Ringhand said she was less eager to back legalizing recreational weed and would consider supporting a bill only if its provisions mirror those of Rock County’s advisory referendum.

Rock County’s referendum—which passed 46,669 to 20,769—read: “Should cannabis be legalized for adult use, taxed and regulated like alcohol, with the proceeds from the taxes used for education, health care and infrastructure?”

In a statement Thursday, state Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, said he would get on board with a medical marijuana bill if it “allows doctors to prescribe marijuana to ease the suffering of people with debilitating illnesses.”

State Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, has championed decriminalizing marijuana since being elected to the Assembly in 2014. He has yet to publicly support legalizing recreational marijuana, but Tuesday’s wide margin of victory in Rock County and across the state left him open to a recreational marijuana bill.

“We’ve sort of had a clear sense in the past the public supported medical and decriminalization,” Spreitzer said. “For me, the next step is to dig into the details and try to talk to some people. … Certainly, it was not a close vote.

“My general approach would be to support any bill that makes sense. That could be multiple bills. Certainly, I would support decriminalization. … That would not stop me from cosponsoring a bill that goes farther.”

Splitting from the pack of local Democrats is state Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville. Before Tuesday’s vote, she had said the results would mold her support for or opposition to marijuana. Now, she says she backs regulating marijuana like alcohol but “has concerns” about medical marijuana.

Among those concerns is an abuse of the medication, she said. Still, she would likely vote for a medical marijuana bill because of the emphatic support from residents Tuesday.

“We had a huge number of people vote, and the majority said this issue is important,” Kolste said. “I just think if this many people are invested in putting their mark on the ballot, we ought to take a look at it.”

For Democrats, the trick with legalizing marijuana in the Legislature will be garnering Republican support and co-sponsorship. Gov.-elect Tony Evers, a Democrat, has said he supports legalizing medical marijuana and would sign a bill, but the measure would have to survive both chambers of the Legislature, where Republicans have the majority.

State Rep. Melissa Sargent, D-Madison, has introduced a full-legalization bill in each of the past three years, and she said last week she will introduce a new iteration in the 2019-20 session, which begins in January. She said the number of co-sponsors for each bill has grown, but no Republican has signed on.

Sargent hopes to lure Republican sponsorship given the overwhelming support of the advisory referendums in conservative areas—the city of Waukesha passed a medical marijuana advisory referendum with 76 percent of the vote—and she believes Democrats will make bipartisan gains this year.

State Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, has typically shied away from supporting any kind of marijuana legalization, but she called Tuesday’s results “interesting.” It’s still “too soon” for her to shape her opinion on recreational marijuana, she said, but she seemed to indicate an openness to medical marijuana.

“If somebody is terminally ill ... and prescribed marijuana, that is a very, very different argument than recreational use,” she said.

Recreational marijuana on the other hand?

“I’m open to having that conversation but still very skeptical,” she said.

Angela Major 

The flag folded during the flag folding ceremony is placed at the World War I Battlefield Cross during the Veterans Day program Sunday, November 11, 2018, at the Traxler Park warming house in Janesville.

Death list for Nov. 12, 2018

Henry J. Ells

Helen J. Larson

Frank Stratton

Betty L. Updike

Trump walks alone as Macron rips nationalism


In what appeared a direct rebuke, French President Emmanuel Macron warned President Donald Trump and other leaders Sunday that a dark new tide of nationalism, the label Trump recently embraced for his “America First” movement, ignores the painful lessons of history and threatens a fragile global order.

“Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism,” Macron said as Trump sat, unsmiling, with more than 100 other world leaders at a commemoration at the Arc de Triomphe of the moment when World War I ended 100 years ago.

“Old demons are coming back to the surface,” Macron said, citing the dangerous resurgence of the ethnic and religious hatred that led to that devastating conflict—and the cataclysmic global war that followed three decades later.

Macron’s address reflected the widespread anger and concern in Europe about Trump’s belligerent rhetoric and policies, which have put his administration at odds with America’s closest allies and challenged the alliances and institutions built to ensure peace since the end of World War II.

Trump’s go-it-alone approach on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and trade, among other issues, was symbolized when he walked apart from the dozens of world leaders who marched together under black umbrellas down the rain-soaked Champs-Elysees for the Armistice Day ceremony.

Aides said he had arrived separately in a motorcade for security reasons. Despite the November chill and the security cordon, a topless woman with “fake,” “peace” and other words written on her body managed to run near Trump’s vehicle.

Trump also attended a lunch Sunday with world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. The event was closed to the press.

Trump and Putin are expected to meet this month at a Group of 20 summit in Argentina.

Trump left Paris late Sunday to fly back to Washington, skipping a three-day forum that Macron hosted with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an effort to galvanize global action on shared challenges, including climate change.

Merkel warned against taking peace for granted. “We have to work for it,” she said. She also made a veiled dig at Trump’s attacks on multilateral organizations, saying “unwillingness to compromise” can have deadly consequences.

Macron’s address Sunday effectively was a rebuttal to Trump’s September address to the United Nations General Assembly, where he defined globalism as the opposite of patriotism.

Europe’s liberal democratic leaders have felt under threat from a rising tide of right-wing populist nationalism in Poland, Hungary, Russia and elsewhere, even as Trump has challenged the trans-Atlantic alliance. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, followed by Trump’s election victory in 2016, cemented that anxiety.

The EU now faces unprecedented strains from a backlash to a migrant flood from Africa and the Middle East, a decade-long financial crisis that has worsened inequality in many areas, and a bevy of far-right politicians who have exploited ancient ethnic divisions and fears.

Merkel had been the public face of European resistance to the revival of right-wing nationalism, but she recently announced plans to resign as her party’s leader and ease out of public life in the next few years.

Macron, who tried to charm Trump last year by inviting him to a Bastille Day parade and dinner atop the Eiffel Tower, has increasingly assumed Merkel’s role. His relationship with Trump, once filled with friendly pats and body hugs, gave way this weekend to polite handshakes and tight-lipped smiles.

As U.S. president, Trump sat front row center at the centennial ceremony Sunday. He received a handshake from Macron and a thumbs-up from Putin under a temporary structure that protected them from an onslaught of rain.

But Macron’s speech was not designed to comfort Trump, who sat between his wife, Melania, and Merkel.

Macron recounted the suffering inflicted by World War I— more than 16 million soldiers and civilians killed, millions more maimed and wounded, and the shelling, slaughter and poison gas that laid waste to vast swaths of Europe, “the scars of which are still visible.”

The lesson of World War I, he said, “cannot be rancor and resentment against other nations and it cannot be allowing the past to be forgotten.”

Macon did not name Trump or his “America First” stand. But he cast nationalism as a dangerous and selfish ideology, one that led to two world wars.

“By saying, ‘Our interests first, who cares about the others?,’ we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what gives it grace, and what is essential for its moral values,” Macron said.

Macron’s speech was the centerpiece of a memorial service that commemorated the moment the guns went silent in 1918—on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—after four years of unremitting carnage.


Janis Ringhand