NEW PORT RICHEY — A group of Ridgewood High School students will cross the stage at graduation with something as important as their diploma:
Their nursing license.
Fifteen members of the Class of 2012 earned certified nursing assistant licenses through the four-year Academy of Health & Human Services program, which is run out of the neighboring Marchman Technical Education Center campus. By spending one class period a day working through the nursing program, these students graduate with a golden ticket in a still sluggish economy.
"It's such an advantage to be able to look for a job right away," said Molly Barr, 18.
Barr and several others plan to continue their medical education at various Florida universities. They credit the nursing program for their educational growth and point to their instructor, Sharon Zajd, a registered nurse turned full-time educator, as inspiration. And her latest graduating class is impressive with 100 percent of her students passing the CNA skills test, and 87 percent passing the written test. The students have also logged numerous hours of hands-on training in local nursing homes.
"We have top-of-the-line kids here," Zajd said. "And we need that. This is our community."
The nursing students refer to themselves as a family, with Zajd leading the way.
"We call her the mama bear," said Katie Millner, 18.
It took time, however, to become that happy family. Working through the program takes dedication, with classes each day throughout the school year for four years. And the program pulls from a pool of student applicants with backgrounds of all sorts.
"It's make or break here right away. There are lots of rules that you don't like when you first get here. And there are lots of different personalities put together," said Barr, who will attend the University of Central Florida in the fall.
Gabriella Guardado, 17, who has racked up $33,000 in scholarships and will attend the University of South Florida, put it more bluntly as she described her freshman year in the program.
"I don't think any of us liked each other in the beginning. Some didn't make it. It just wasn't for them, but it worked for me," she said. "There is something to be said for being with the same people for four years. You become a family."
A diverse family, epitomized by Sara Kosarac's extraordinary journey. She was born in war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s and remembers moving from home to home as her parents became targets of ethnic strife. Her mother, a Bosnian Muslim, and her father, an Orthodox Serbian, brought her to the United States when she was 6.
"What my parents went through, it made me appreciate that I have an opportunity here," said Kosarac, 17, who will attend the University of Central Florida. "And it gave me an understanding that you have to accept people for who they are."
The prospective nursing assistants cited different reasons for joining the program. For Millner, it was personal: As an elementary student she helped care for her diabetic grandfather, helping him with his insulin shots, recording his meals and checking his blood pressure, until his death when she was in middle school.
Millner, who will attend the University of Florida this fall, says she also had health problems as a child, so she empathizes with patients in pain.
"I understand what they are going through and I think that helps," said Millner.
The students, who are set to graduate June 1, are looking forward to helping others as they move on to the next chapter of their lives.
"Helping people, I liked it from the start," Guardado said.