02-19-2017  8:53 am      •     

Henrietta Lacks

Vancouver's Evergreen Public Schools will be opening the Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School in September. The new medical vocational school will partner with nearby medical facilities and provide internships and mentorships for its students. It will also honor the legacy of one of the profession's most important, yet unsung heroes.

"It's the first public building that we can find in the country named after her," says Superintendent John Deeder. "The HeLa cell has probably been used more in research in conquering things like polio and a number of types of cancer as much as any cell line ever. She's a significant person who unfortunately was never recognized and we thought this was a great way to recognize her contribution."

Lacks' story is one of the great medical injustices of history, where doctors profited off of the same cancer cells that killed her and her family wasn't even aware nor was Lacks given any credit until decades after it happened.

In 1951, she went to John Hopkins Hospital because she felt a lump inside her body. In addition to discovering Lacks was pregnant, doctors also found a cancerous tumor. During her radiation treatments, two samples of her cervix were removed without her permission. The cells from one of those samples would eventually become the HeLa immortal cell line, one of the most important contributions to biomedical research.

Her family didn't find out about the removal of the cells until the early 1970s, when they started getting calls from researchers requesting samples of their DNA.

Morehouse School of Medicine posthumously honored Lacks and her family in 1996 for contributions to medicine and health research. Rebecca Skloot documented the history of Lacks' family and the HeLa cell in articles in the early 2000s and her 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

The new school in her namesake will feature focus areas in pharmacology, health informatics, bioengineering, biosciences and nursing. Students can choose which track they would like to take. Their first two years will center on basic medical foundations and standard courses like English, math and science. Junior and senior year will see the students take on four to six intensive courses in their area of study, which will include high level math and science.

They will also participate in a related internship, mentorship or medical research program. Deeder says this worksite experience will be integral to their education.

"We think the future of education is around kids having that," he says. "We're really looking for ways to have all kids experience something in a worksite before they graduate from a high school so they can develop some of those work habits. Develop some of those attitudes on how you work with other people, how you collaborate and how you communicate. We want them to know the importance of getting to work on time, the importance of being there period and how important you are as an individual to the success of a firm or organization, as well as how important it is that you understand that you are a part of the bigger picture and what part you play in the success of the firm."

According to Deeder, the school will eventually serve 500-600 students. It will begin with freshman and sophomore classes.

If students are interested in playing sports or participating in other extracurricular activities, they will be allowed to do so through their neighborhood schools.

The largest source of funding for the building came from the federal stimulus program, through Qualified School Construction Bonds. According to Deeder, this program allows school districts to borrow up to $17.5 million for capital improvements. It's a zero interest loan so the district has to pay back the money within 17 years. Evergreen has 14 more years to pay it back because the district took out the loan three years ago. Deeder says the district is taking out $1 million a year from its general fund and putting it into a sinking fund. Due to interest rates, the district will end up paying only $13 million of the $17 million loan.

The rest of the funding came through state money. Deeder says the district qualified for $11 million of State Matching funds, which can pay for buildings that serve "un-housed students" when there are enrollment overflows at other schools in the district.

All told, the district will be paying less than half of the cost of the actual building.

Ultimately, Deeder sees the new school as a way to keep students interested in learning.

"We think that this kind of school will keep some kids that may not have fit in a comprehensive high school engaged in school because they'll be doing something they really like," he says. "Their whole program will be based around it and they'll be immersed in it so they can develop some real skills."

For more information on Hela High, go to the Evergreen Public Schools page.

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