As in many low-income neighborhoods nationwide, health care access is a serious problem in Morgan Park on the South Side of Chicago.
But a national program, the Health Careers Opportunity Program, aims to change this by sparking the interest of students in Morgan Park and other low-income communities in becoming health care professionals themselves. HCOP gives them an opportunity to earn a degree in public health and go back to their community to help.
“We take students from impoverished areas who are interested in a career in health care, and when they are finished with the program and college, he or she can go to an area where health care is lacking and offer it,” said Dorothy Washington-Calvin, a UIC School of Public Health staffer who administers HCOP.
HCOP is run through the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago State University, serving 6th through 12th grade students from Morgan Park and other elementary and high schools on the South and West Sides of the city. The program covers 95 percent of the state areas designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas, meaning they lack residents with Masters and Doctoral degrees in public health.
The program revolves around “Public Health Sciences Saturday Colleges.” Every Saturday for 30 weeks, students spend six hours a day learning subjects that will help their academics and expose them to public health research. The classes aim to increase students’ interest in science, math and public health. Students are encouraged to take Honors and Advanced Placement science courses.
Along with the Saturday classes, students take field trips to labs, science museums and health care institutions, where they can observe health care professionals at work. The program also offers free ACT prep classes.
Program leaders hope training youth in health care fields can improve health care access in the community as a whole.
According to the Encyclopedia of Public Health, people in low-income neighborhoods are especially prone to health problems and disproportionately lack health care. They are more likely to become ill and die at younger ages than those with higher incomes.
During the last school year, 71.4 percent of Morgan Park High School’s 1,744 students qualified as low-income, according to the Chicago Public Schools. Additionally, 83.2 percent of students at Alice L. Barnard Computer, Math & Science Center, an elementary school in Morgan Park, were low-income.
HCOP began in 1981, but in 2006 the program was put on hold due to a lack of funding. When HCOP was re-launched in 2007, Morgan Park High School did not get involved. But at the start of this school year, Washington-Calvin came to the school as principal for a day. She talked with faculty about the program, and they decided to get back into it.
Remy Washington, math and science coordinator at Morgan Park and co-sponsor of HCOP at the school, says there are about 15 Morgan Park students in the program, mostly girls.
Morgan Park junior Jirmiah Leverette said there are various reasons he is participating. Among other things he wants to raise awareness of how healthy habits pay off in better quality of life. Because of the program, he said he reads up on health care issues, and he wants to help provide affordable health care to under-served communities.
“I want to assist in designing an electronic medical database that makes things easier for people with legal cases with health care,” he said.