AOL’s academic majors offer real-life experience

By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

With aspirations for medical careers, students from Academy of Our Lady (AOL) are regular fixtures at Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center in Algiers.

Academic health science majors at the all-girls’ Marrero high school begin slowly as interns at Our Lady of Wisdom –  making beds, helping dress residents, getting them in and out of their rooms for meals and other tasks such as baths and weigh ins.

“As they progress, students will be able to feed the residents who need assistance and help with personal needs in their daily lives,” said teacher Katherine “Katie” Heitmann, BSN, RN, M.Ed., health sciences department head at Academy of Our Lady and a nurse in the ER at West Jefferson Medical Center. “I’m trying to get them to interact and get the feel of elderly needs,”Heitmann said. “These residents have done so much in their lives. It’s good for our students to understand not only healthcare but the dignity of end-of-life care.”

Heitmann mentors students with faculty member Jeanne Krieger, an infectious disease control nurse in employee health at River Oaks Hospital in Harahan. Krieger has a master’s in public health.

Work in classroom first

To prepare students, teachers use Academy of Our Lady’s health care lab, complete with a mock hospital room equipped with patient beds and a bathroom fitted with higher seats and safety rails. This affords students practice in turning patients, changing sheets and an awareness of elderly patients’ needs. Handwashing is stressed throughout the course since disease spreads quickly by touching something touched by someone sick.

“It’s a reinforcement of fundamental health science skills they will need in any healthcare profession,” Heitmann said.

Another skill students gain from participation is speaking to adults.

“I now know how to speak to people (especially the elderly), moderating the noise level to what’s appropriate and not appropriate,” senior  Alexys O’Quain said. “We don’t talk to residents in a baby way. They have dignity, so we learn to talk to them accordingly.”

2016 AOL graduate Kayla Scholl, in her first year at LSU Health Sciences Center School of Nursing, agreed.

“I truly believe AOL prepared me well for nursing school,” Scholl said. “The medical terminology and Internship 1 and 2 were the most helpful … (in) one of my classes, we are going over laws and history of nursing, and I have pretty much seen that already. When I took chemistry and biology, I hardly had to study because I knew it already.”

Upon completion of this track in senior year and passage of the national health science test, students will have CNA certification.

Positive changes since 2009

In addition to health sciences, Academy of Our Lady has academic majors in culinary arts, law and civil leadership (prepares women for engineering careers with membership in the Engineer Your World program) and STEM (prepares women for engineering careers with membership in the Engineer Your World program). Health science and culinary rank the most popular. Upon completion of any major, students receive an honor cord at graduation, reflective of their program. Eighth graders are invited to take the robotics course, setting the path to continue in the STEM academic majors program, Heitmann said.

Students who elect participation in health science must maintain an overall grade point average of 2.0 and a B or higher in all pre-requisites to advance. All majors are designed to solidify students’ future careers and have different requirements.

At completion of the popular health sciences major, students have CNA certification.

“We’re trying to get them to get a feel of health care before they go to college and realize they picked the wrong major,” Krieger said. “This helps with college credits and saves families money. It also empowers girls to be self-sufficient and not dependent on a bad relationship or bad marriages … and helps obtain college scholarships.”

She said former AOL graduates work CNA jobs while in college and have asked her for recommendation and job opportunities.

“We’re all interested in helping our students succeed,” Krieger said.

Senior Katelyn Kruger, who plans to attend Southeastern Louisiana University in the fall, has her eyes set on being a nurse practitioner.

“It’s a good starting program,” Kruger said. “A lot of people going into nursing don’t know what to expect. As a senior in high school, it gives you an overview of nursing and if you really want to go into this when you go to college.”

Faith infused with knowledge

Not only do AOL students get exposed to future careers, they also receive a Catholic faith perspective in each field.

Through the healthcare major, they attend rosaries or Masses at Our Lady of Wisdom where they volunteer to help them realize the spiritual and emotional dimension of a person beyond their health. Oftentimes, in health care, an illness is cured at the expense of forgetting the person with the illness.

“And they have the Catholic perspective of health care, teaching them the ethics of end-of-life care,” Heitmann said, and discussing Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders from patients.

“We have to respect residents’ rights,” Krieger said. “As Christians we promote life and have to understand end of life. They learn a lot of tough lessons. … We come from the perspective that we open our heart to goodness. That’s part of baptism. You anoint your heart and end up with spiritual teaching.” She gave an example of the Florida school shooting. “We are trying to recognize that these people (shooters) are flawed but part of God’s heart.”

“Death and dying help them reflect on their views of life and helps form them in their faith,” Heitmann said. “We pray in the classroom for the sick … for the employees. We keep God in their minds; that God is with us and loves us, and that he’s in the sick we are taking care of. It’s small, little ways we reinforce that life matters.”

“I like volunteering,” senior Etta Rufus said. “You gain experience, and I think it’s a good opportunity to learn something that will benefit me later in life. You find out your options on what you want to do later.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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