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Cindy Ness went to work at the St. Louis College of Health Careers in 2000, a year after the school reluctantly promised the Missouri Board of Nursing that it would shutter its practical nursing program at both campuses.
For years graduates of the nursing program failed the state nursing exam at staggering rates. In 1998 only 47 percent of graduates managed to pass the test, a requirement to be a nurse in Missouri.
Under Ness' tutelage, 90 percent of nursing graduates in the 2000-2001 class aced the state exam. But Ness says she left in disgust after only one year when a school owner ordered her to pass five nursing students who had failed classes.
"We were told to let them into the second semester," explains Ness. "I wouldn't let them in, and that's when they got really upset with me. They went to [an instructor] and told her to do it."
Another instructor confirms that Barsam and Robinson ordered her to re-test students who had failed classes. "In order to get a passing grade in the class, they had to retake tests," the teacher says. "If they failed a class, they would get kicked out, and [the school] didn't want to lose the money -- the financial aid."
Scott Tapp says that when he asked a supervisor how an illiterate student was supposed to pass his anatomy class, he was told, "Shut up. This is what we do."
The college's own catalog states that students with grade-point averages below 2.0 will be suspended and their financial aid will be terminated. Nursing students must maintain a 3.0 GPA. Schools are required by law to adhere to the academic-progress policies outlined in their catalogs, confirms Dennis Mertes, team leader of the Kansas City region of the U.S. Department of Education. However, Mertes declined to comment on specific allegations pertaining to the St. Louis College of Health Careers.
When graduates of the practical nursing program took the state nursing exam this year, only 65 percent passed. That's a far cry from the 80-percent pass rate required by the state Board of Nursing for a school to maintain accreditation. In 2003 only 73 percent of the school's alumni made the grade, and in 2002 only 66 percent passed.
In December the nursing board will consider whether to revoke the college's accreditation, confirms Lori Scheidt, the board's executive director. But despite its past performance, college officials can still reopen a nursing program, just as they did in 2000, she says.
"It is true that they could close one day and reopen the next, and the board would not have the grounds to deny them unless there is something wrong with their proposal," Scheidt explains.
In the months after Latisha and Arlisa Tally graduated, the sisters returned to the campus, trying to avail themselves of placement services they were promised.
They never found a job, but on one visit, the sisters noticed some big changes at the school. "They were painting rooms and putting in new carpet," Arlisa says.
Before a scheduled visit by the Accrediting Bureau of Health Education Schools (ABHES) in the fall of 2002, both campuses got a facelift, plus thousands of dollars worth of new medical laboratory equipment. The college also borrowed $70,000 to buy new computers, according to Uniform Commercial Code records filed with the Missouri Secretary of State's office.
"We did buy -- right before ABHES came -- a bunch of new equipment: new microscopes, new centrifuges, new incubators," says a school employee.
Despite that, the ABHES visit "was a total disaster," the employee says. "We got a huge report back on all the things that were screwed up."
ABHES is a national organization that gives its seal of approval to more than 200 vocational-health schools that meet its standards. Executive director Carol Moneymaker confirms that her organization placed the school on conditional approval in 2002 but refuses to discuss any details of the on-site visit.
"It's not public information," Moneymaker explains. "The institution would have to approve the release of that information."
But according to one employee, the accreditation team found fault with the school's internship practices, among other things. ABHES requires allied health students to intern at a medical facility such as a doctor's office or a hospital.
Each student's internship file should have included the dates and hours a student worked and a supervisor's signature. But on many of the work logs, the hours were incomplete and there were no signatures, even though the students graduated, the employee says.
"We used a lot of the same clinical sites, so we'd pull a [student] file from the same site where [there was a supervisor's signature]," the employee says. "We had to go back and do a lot of cutting and pasting of signatures."
Former student Lynn Mareschal says that when she and her classmates interned at a nursing home, the instructor told students to lie about their hours. "[The teacher] would tell you to just go home. We'd leave at noon or one o' clock, and we'd sign out and say we left at three," she says. "They wanted it to appear we had done all the clinical hours we were required to do, but we weren't doing them."