School of Nursing rendering

By Lini S. Kadaba

Over the next several years, Reading and Berks County, like the nation, will face a significant shortage of nurses and other healthcare workers. To meet the challenge, Alvernia University is undertaking a major expansion of its health sciences programs — part of a future-focused approach that will not only benefit students but also the larger Reading community.

“We’re teaching our students to be adaptive and nimble,” said Patricia Reger, dean of the College of Health Sciences, “and meet the needs of today’s society and the society of tomorrow."

Nowhere will that be more exemplified than at Alvernia’s ambitious Reading CollegeTowne, where Phase Two will include state-of-the-art facilities for health sciences as well as expanded nursing and refreshed occupational therapy programs, a new master’s-level Physician Associate (PA) Program and a partnership with a community health provider that will provide experiential learning opportunities for students.

Demand for healthcare workers, Reger said, is being fueled by an aging population and massive exodus of nurses and other health professionals burnt out from the pandemic. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the United States will have an estimated 203,200 openings for registered nurses each year through 2031. The bureau also projects employment of physician associates (formerly assistants) to grow 28 percent between 2021 and 2031, making it one of the fastest-growing professions in the country.

Berks County, for example, saw a decline of 2,500 nurses and other healthcare workers from 2019 to 2021, according to Wendy Clayton, vice president and chief nursing officer at Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Reading, an Alvernia nursing program partner. “That’s a big shortage when it comes to quality care and patient experience,” Clayton said. “We need people at the bedside desperately.”

Fortunately for the region, Alvernia’s health sciences expect to make a dent in those numbers. By fall, the newly named John and Karen Arnold School of Nursing (see sidebar) plans to occupy the renovated second floor of the John R. Post Center at Reading CollegeTowne, 401 Penn St. The nationally ranked nursing program’s $6.4 million expansion will add 25,000 square feet of classroom and lab space, enlarging its capacity by 42 percent, Alvernia said.

Meanwhile the PA Program is expected to launch in 2024 from the third floor of the Post Center and will be the first of its kind in Berks County, said Renee Langstaff, director of the Physician Associate Program and chair of the Medical Science Department. “The university recognizes the need for more PAs to serve our community,” she said. “It’s one of the fastest growing professions in the country. We will give preference to local applicants, in hopes that they will work locally after graduation. This will help to fill current holes in clinical care.”

The new facilities also will boast a Healthcare Simulation Center featuring high-fidelity, computerized mannequins programmed to breathe, have a heartbeat, talk (once cued by instructors) and even die — giving students realistic experiences that reinforce classroom lessons before they go onto hospital floors, Reger said.

Nursing junior Jamie Albert said the additional resources will “elevate our learning” and “provide students such as me the continuous growth and opportunities to reach our personal and professional goals.”

A partnership with Community Health Center, a local community health provider, will offer experiential learning for Alvernia students while providing free and low-cost care and wellness resources. “When the health of a community rises, the whole community rises,” Reger said.

In fact, Alvernia’s $50 million landmark economic development CollegeTowne strategy holds the promise to truly transform historically struggling Reading — an objective that aligns with the institution’s Franciscan-rooted mission to serve the underserved through education and economic development. According to Alvernia’s CollegeTowne proposal, about 32 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Reading also faces high unemployment, low educational attainment and blight.

Already, though, hopeful signs are appearing, starting with the 240,000-square-foot Post center, the hub of CollegeTowne. In 2021, the John R. Post School of Engineering and the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development SPARK Business Incubator opened on the first floor; higher floors house students. A prime example of a robust public-private partnership, the initiative is funded through substantial philanthropic gifts as well as $12.5 million in Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grants; $2 million from Reading via the American Rescue Act, and $1 million from Berks County.

“When you drive through Penn Street, you can see how the proximity to CollegeTowne has changed the face, literally, of some of those buildings,” said Jim Bennett, St. Joe’s chief operating officer and senior vice president. “For Penn State Health to be part of this movement is an opportunity of a lifetime.”