Rachelle Simmons has been a nurse for 23 years. “I grew up in St. Paul’s Summit/University neighborhood. And I always knew the one nurse that worked out of Regions [Hospital] — everybody did, because she was the only Black nurse there then,” Simmons explains. Now she’s in the business of ensuring there will be more nurses of color working in those hospitals.
Simmons started as certified nursing assistant (CNA) and later went to school to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN). When the class for LPN began, she was one of 80 students, but after the first two semesters that number dwindled to 40.
“They told us by the second semester — this was at St. Paul Technical College — half the people sitting with you are going to be gone,” Simmons explains. “I was 20 and I had a one-year-old. I was like, it’s not going to be me.”
She finished school in 1990. At the first couple of jobs she obtained as an LPN, she was the only African American nurse on their staff. She saw how the lack of diversity affected patients of color.
“Black people and minorities in general are intimidated by going to the medical professionals, because they don’t talk to them in a way that [they] can understand. Even when another minority comes in and sees a minority nurse, I can just see the weight lifted off of them.”
Fifteen years ago, Simmons went on to obtain an RN license. During that process, she and three other African Americans and one Asian student made up the total number of students of color in class.
In 2006 she went to work for an IV infusion company, where after two years a senior corporate position became available at Allina Hospital Systems’ corporate office. Simmons by then had grown children and decided to apply for the position.
“While I was working there, every Wednesday we had this meeting with my staff,” she explains. “There were 10-15 women at the table, and all throughout my nursing career it’s always been White females… And the market was kind of controlled by White women.”
At the time, Simmons was making a six-figure salary. “I’m looking at my neighborhood and [asking], ‘Why am I still, 23 years later, the only Black person working at a job, [as] a nurse. Why don’t I have other Black colleagues?’”
Three years ago, Simmons took her son to an HBCU college in Baltimore, Maryland. The population there was overwhelmingly Black, and the unemployment rate hovered at around 20 percent. What Simmons noticed was the number of hospitals, and she wondered why, with so many hospitals, people didn’t have jobs.
After returning to the Twin Cities, Simmons’ observations in Baltimore led her to think about teaching. After months of training and research, she gave her notice to her employer and opened Foundations Health Career Academy.
Students starting at age 16 years without a high school diploma or GED can go to Simmons’ school. The cost of the class is $950. She offers a dual-certificate class, CNA/HHA, over a four-week period, Monday through Thursday.
The class meets the 80-hour in-class State requirement, consisting of three weeks of lecture and skills done in the classroom, and one week of clinical work, 18 hours, done across the street from the school at Galtier Health Care Center for an externship. Morning classes are held from 10 am to 3 pm and evening classes from 4-9 pm.
After graduating the class, students take a NATO (Nursing Assistant Test Out) exam at Century College or Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Passing the test certifies them with the State of Minnesota, but they can complete paperwork to transfer their license anywhere in the United States.
To start the school, “I cashed out my 401K, my retirement, [and] all my savings,” says Simmons. “I didn’t get a loan.” She opened her school with three students.
Everyone who called asked for financial aid, which she didn’t offer. “Here I’m thinking people are just going to come and pay. Well, the people that I wanted to reach didn’t have any money.”
Ramsey County offers financial assistance for low-income people to receive CNA/HHA training, but they have a contractual agreement with the Red Cross. As a result of having fewer students and allowing students to attend who couldn’t pay, Simmons made $3,000 between July and December of last year and maxed out her credit cards.
Through dedication and running a tight financial ship, she manages to say in business. “I am the janitor, I am the receptionist, I am the teacher, I am the bookkeeper, I’m everything. It’s just me.”
Simmons retains most of her students, she feels, by offering a different style of teaching. “I do stories, I relate [what they are learning to] their life, and I give examples. I knew coming into this that [it would be] a struggle, because I’ve heard so many people tell me, ‘I don’t think I should go back to school. I failed.’”
She tells them, “It’s not you. I’ve heard this story before. It’s all in the way that [the teacher] delivers the information.”
Simmons has graduated 10 classes that total about 100 students. Eighty percent of her students take the State CNA/HHA test, “93 percent pass the test the first time, [and] the others pass it the second time.” Most of the 20 percent who do not take the test are those who take the class as a prerequisite for higher-level nursing classes.
“All the students that have taken the State test have all gone on to get jobs,” Simmons says. “I think I’m doing better than the welfare department. I’ve got people jobs that were on welfare in 16 days… They’ve gone from welfare to a job [making] $12-20 an hour.
“I see the neighborhood depressed, and…with a little bit of investment and education, [nursing is] a good living. It’s growing every day, and it’s never going to go away.”
Foundation Career Health Academy is located at 225 University Avenue in St. Paul. For more information, call 651-224-6762 or go to www.healthcarejobsmn.com.
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.