Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Isabel Tomas listens to Kimberly Lopez's heart beat during a health care career fair held at The Howard School Thursday, November 7, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The career fair was held for students who are part of the Erlanger Institute for Healthcare and Innovation.

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Hamilton County Schools, Erlanger initiative

The Howard School 11th grader Kirsten Mendoza and ninth grader Desean Aaron already see health care careers in their future.

Mendoza said she got the idea to become a nurse practitioner from her mother, a licensed practical nurse. Aaron is drawn to pharmacy or respiratory therapy, because a lot of his family members have lung problems, he said. He's also been in and out of the hospital since sixth grade and met many influential providers along the way.

"I've actually had tumors and hernias, and so I feel like being in health care can help me repay people that gave me a second chance on life," Aaron said.

Both are part of the 172 students in the Erlanger Institute of Healthcare and Innovation at The Howard School — one of 28 Future Ready Institutes in Hamilton County Schools. The institutes are small, career academies embedded in 13 of the district's traditional high schools and are focused on specific industry themes such as health care, technology, advanced manufacturing, mechatronics and more.

"In life, you can't be what you can't see," said Howard Assistant Principal Charles Mitchell.

Students in the health care institute take career classes such as first aid, CPR and anatomy as well as spend time at the hospital. Mitchell recalled how one Howard student said he now wants to be an anesthesiologist.

"That's a direct reflection of our Future Ready Institute," Mitchell said. "We go to Erlanger, we have doctors come in and they talk, and now he has that confidence, because he's been exposed to it."

On Thursday, Howard students from Erlanger's Institute of Healthcare and Innovation participated in a "medical vision day" sponsored by Cempa Community Care, a nonprofit that aims to prevent and treat HIV and other infectious diseases in Southeast Tennessee. LaDarius Price, community outreach manager at Cempa, spearheaded the effort to show students different opportunities and what it takes to be successful in health care professions.

"You can be a nurse, you can go into physical therapy and so many other things," Price said. "It's teaching them there's so much more to the medical field than just being a doctor."

Thursday allowed the students to have more one-on-one interaction with a variety of professionals, including dental hygienists, respiratory therapists, surgeons, family medicine physicians and multiple nurses in specialties ranging from neonatal to trauma. Several colleges and universities that offer programs in these fields were on site, as well.

In addition to preparing for their own careers, students will use what they learned Thursday to prepare for a major project that involves recreating a career fair. They will study a profession they're interested in and form their own booths for middle schoolers to tour at the end of the semester.

Mendoza and Aaron said their advice for those future students is to enjoy your time but don't waste it.

"Anything is possible, but you only have four years here," Aaron said. "That's not a lot of time, so you need to figure out what you want to be."

Staff writer Meghan Mangrum contributed to this story.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.