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Teens study in healthy setting

Charter program exposes students to medical work

Christine Schromm (center) works with students Tonnie Griham and Andre Lawrence at Codman Square Health Center. Christine Schromm (center) works with students Tonnie Griham and Andre Lawrence at Codman Square Health Center. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)
By Brian Ballou
Globe Staff / December 19, 2008
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Tonnie Griham Jr. wants to become an engineer. He had not considered working in healthcare because he thought there was no place for an engineer in that field. Now, he knows better.

"Chris opened my mind to bioengineering," Griham said, referring to Christine Schromm, his lab mentor at the Codman Square Health Center.

Griham and the rest of the 21 members of the senior class at the Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester wrapped up their two-week internships yesterday in the Health Professions Immersion Program.

The school, with 120 students from grades 9 to 12, is inside the health center.

The new program, required for seniors at the school, is geared to exposing students to the professional work environment.

Another purpose is to increase the ranks of minorities, particularly inner-city blacks at or below the poverty line, in healthcare, a profession that continues to grow even as the economy flutters.

The hope is that the students will go back to their communities and work to eliminate healthcare problems endemic to African-Americans, such as diabetes and hypertension.

Bill Walczak, chief executive of the Codman Square Health Center and cofounder of the 7-year-old school, said, "I don't know how many of them may become doctors or nurses, but I do believe many of them will likely wind up in the industry.

"One in five jobs in the Boston area are health-care related, and they pay well," he said. "It's probably the quickest way to go from poverty to middle class."

Walczak added, "An overwhelming majority of people in the health profession in this city, and medical students, are white and from the suburbs. I wanted to see people from this neighborhood get into the profession."

About 98 percent of the academy's students are African-American or Hispanic and live primarily Dorchester and Mattapan. About 75 percent of the student body qualify for free or reduced lunches. The school operates on a $2 million budget.

Walczak said he knows of no other US high school located inside a community health center and thinks the immersion program will serve as a model throughout the country. The school runs six days a week, from 9 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Walczak said every graduate of the school has been accepted to a 4-year college or university, and three-fourths of those students are pursuing degrees.

From Dec. 8-18, the seniors worked in various sections of the center, such as dentistry, urgent care, radiology, and pediatrics. They shadowed mentors and performed many of the duties of an actual employee.

Lisa Graustein, a humanities teacher at the academy and coordinator of the senior internship program said, "The students are learning a lot, but at the same time, the staff members of the clinic are, too."

Schromm, a clinical laboratory scientist, said the students have been great to mentor. "They have curiosity and are motivated, and that is something that definitely has kept us on our toes," she said.

For Griham, 17, and lab partner Andre Lawrence, that meant analyzing urine and blood samples under microscopes and evaluating tests at computer work stations, flagging results that appeared questionable.

While Griham might have found a new field to pursue, Lawrence has been focused on becoming a psychiatrist.

Friends with problems often gravitate to the tall, lanky 18-year-old with a disarming smile and a magnetic personality he says comes from his nurturing mother.

"It seems like everyone likes to confide in me," Lawrence said.

Griham responded, "Yeah, like half the school."

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