Pre-Med for High Schoolers?

medical magnet school

Some kids build a model of a volcano for their high school science project. Tony Hansberry of Jacksonville, Florida developed a simpler way to stitch up patients after a hysterectomy that could reduce the risk of complications.

Tony's technique has since been used once by a certified gynecologist in surgery, and on Thursday Tony, a tenth grader, was called upon to demonstrate the technique to a roomful of doctors at Northside Hospital in Atlanta.

The demonstration took place on a mannequin, of course, because Hansberry isn't t a doctor -- yet. At 15, he's not even old enough to drive.

But he has mastered the art of suturing a wound, because suturing is part of the eight grade curriculum at the Darnell Cookman School, the medically-focused magnet school Hansberry attends.

The first of its kind in the U.S., the Darnell Cookman School is a sixth-through-twelfth grade school in Jacksonville that gives students a background in all things medical, in hopes of better preparing them for careers as physicians, veterinarians, hospital administrators, or nurses.

Tony wants to be a physician and with the experience he'll gain at Darnell Cookman, he says, he'll have a leg up on other pre-med students when he gets to college.

"I've had four years of medicine already. [Darnell Cookman students] will be entering medical school with a vast knowledge that no other freshman will have. They'll have to change the curriculum to fit us in," he says.

Darnell Cookman was already an established magnet school, where kids took advanced courses, when it got approval to start a medical program in 2007, says Mark Ertel, the school's principal.

The program is still young -- Hansberry will be part of the first graduating class -- but Ertel says it has been very successful so far.

"These kids have got many years to go before they can practice medicine, but we want them to leave us with the academic preparation, the mental preparation and the commitment to achieve what will get them through medical school and into the field," he says.

Mini-Med School for High School Students

But can kids as young as twelve handle a medical education?

With students in upper grades balancing college level courses and internships at a hospital across the street, they have a lot to juggle, though Erkel says that most students are managing it well.

Other honors programs and magnet schools offer students with a similar load of advanced placement classes. The difference here is that there is an overall focus on medicine.

"It can be stressful," says Kathi Hansberry, Tony's mother, "but it seems that school is stressful in general now.

"They're staying up late studying like I did in college, but they still have fun as well."

The balance between work and play is what's critical, says Carolyn Landis, psychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital.

"You have to have your time to get through the developmental tasks of childhood, and part of that is unstructured time spent with peers. They're not mini-adults and I think it's up to parents and administrators to make sure that kids are achieving a balance between that work load and free time with same-aged peers."

But beyond the rigor of learning medicine, some doctors wondered if teens are mature enough to handle the subject matter of their lessons.

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