Pre-Med for High Schoolers?

medical magnet schoolCourtesy Kathi Hansberry
Tony Hansberry, 15, of Jacksonville, Fl., is a student at the first medical magnet school in the country, Darnell Cookman School in Jacksonville.

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.

After all, while most high school freshman are just learning the various parts of the female reproductive system, Tony is performing mock surgery on it.

"You have to be careful what context you teach these skills," Landis warns, noting that much of what is taught in medical school wouldn't necessarily be considered appropriate for young teens.

Dr. John Calhoon, head of Thoracic Surgery at University of Texas Health Science Center, adds that maturity is one of the skills needed in medicine, but "teaching it does not mean it is learned."

"I believe this kind of education is our future, but our goal should be to allow folks to develop the skill sets they desire at their own pace," he says.

"Although I appreciate the efforts of a magnet school like this, I worry that children become too focused on becoming a physician too early in life," says Dr. Richard Redett, director of Pediatric Plastic Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"It is as important to enter medical school well-rounded in the arts and literature as it is science and math. One must have a wide variety of experiences to truly empathize with those who suffer."

The person-to-person context of medicine is an important part of the education at Darnell Cookman, Erkel says.

"We try to teach them that there's more to medicine than what you study in a book. It's how you relate to that patient, how you hear what's behind their voice instead of just on their chart."

The Future of a Medical High School

Getting kids excited about medicine -- and school, for that matter -- at such a young age certainly has its advantages.

The program starts in middle school with a few medical electives because that is the key time to get kids interested in the subject and invested in learning more, Erkel says. "You want to get to them before high school and help them through the transition from eighth to ninth grade."

The program also gives kids a chance to see if medicine suits them, says Landis.

"It can be hard to know if medicine is for you until you are exposed to it," she says."This helps them see whether they would be good in a number of professions related to medicine. Not all these kids are going to become surgeons."

What's more, Erkel says their curriculum gives kids an opportunity to see "why academics are important by connecting them to a profession that gives it value."

They get to see how what they learn in the classroom can be direclty applied to help people in the real world, he says, which is a great source of inspiration.

"I don't think there is a question that there will be other schools like us," he says.