The intent young scientists in sterile lab coats, masks and gloves laboring at busy lab stations like professional researchers are actually 11th-graders at Union Square Academy for Health Sciences, the only high school in New York City with a pharmaceutical program.
Today, in the school’s mock pharmacy built to give students “real, hands-on” experience, they are preparing total parenteral nutrition (TPN) IV bags for hospital patients who can’t take anything by mouth.
Each team simulates the processing and preparation of a different doctor’s prescription sent to the hospital pharmacy for an individual patient. The students begin their lab work by garbing — putting on sterile clothing — and preparing equipment at sterile workstations.
As she moves around the room, teacher Leonela Garcia, the creator of the program, comments on how employable the students will be when they graduate with their pharmacy technician certificates or go on, as most do, to college.
“There are so many awesome possibilities for our students,” she said. “They can follow their dreams using their pharmaceutical knowledge in so many fields.”
For the team of Galilea Sanchez, Madeline Lee and Angela Drozdova, the program is a stepping-stone to becoming a nurse, a pharmacist and a business representative for a pharmaceutical company, respectively.
The challenge for today’s pharmacy students, who have come a long way from early herbalists, is to become information specialists handling thousands of sophisticated and highly refined pharmaceutical products and learning how to compound, package and label them according to prescription orders.
The day’s lesson challenges the 10th-graders, who were prepped by teacher Tanola Dunkley on differentiating between a solution and a suspension, to create a suspension following the formula appropriate to each team’s assignment. As they work, combining carefully measured powdered medications with required liquid measures and working the combination until all the dry particles are dissolved, students consult thick, dog-eared pocket pharmacopeias listing thousands of drugs, their uses, preparation and dosages. They then record their findings and answer questions on worksheets.
“They are learning how to work with both speed and accuracy,” Dunkley pointed out.
Because they are trained both to prepare prescriptions and to understand the effects of prescription drugs on the human body, the students are able to explain how they have chosen labels for their suspensions, including warning labels.
Music teacher Rosemarie Bray described the growing program as “a mini college providing an early path to a career,” and the school’s CTE teachers as “a seamless unit all on the same page.”
Garcia and Dunkley were working together as pharmaceutical technicians in a CVS pharmacy in mid-August 2012, when Garcia, who has a science degree, heard about a new pharmacy program at the Union Square Academy that was scheduled to open on the Washington Irving campus in the fall.
“I jumped at the opportunity and took the job on the spot,” she said.
With just a few weeks before the start of the school year, she began building curriculum for the 60 students enrolled in the first class. As the program grew in popularity — there are now 200 students — she recruited Dunkley in 2014.
In addition to a standard academic curriculum, the Union Square Academy provides a year of exploring career opportunities for 9th-graders before they choose between the school’s dentistry and pharmaceutical programs. Those who choose pharmacy pursue a three-year course of study that includes an internship in the 12th grade.
In 2015, an actual pharmacy was added to the laboratory so students now do their work in a realistic, professional environment.
Today the program includes partnerships with CVS, Walgreens, Duane Reade, St. John’s University School of Pharmacy and Mount Sinai, Belleview and Metropolitan hospitals that provide resources for the program and the internships. Representatives from each partner serve on an advisory board.
As news of the program spreads, Garcia said, “Other schools are picking our brains.”
“The Massachusetts School of Pharmacy has been in touch with us,” she explained, “ever since an Academy graduate so impressed them as a freshman with his knowledge of compounding and seemed so ahead of the game.”
The program’s 95 percent graduation rate in 2018, with 97 percent of the graduates going on to post-secondary studies, is strong testament to Garcia’s success in building the curriculum.
Chapter Leader Patrick McLoughlin said Garcia and Dunkley have done amazing work in developing the program and preparing kids for successful futures. “There’s nothing like it in the city,” he pointed out, “and it began here.”