Nursing school closes doors

Published 11:04 pm Thursday, February 7, 2013

After 53 years and 751 other graduates — including seven who walked across the stage immediately before him — it all came down to Michael Andrew Taylor.

His late-alphabet surname made Taylor, a 19-year-old Nansemond River High School alumnus, the very last graduate of the Suffolk Public Schools Sentara Obici Hospital School of Practical Nursing. The school system cut funding for the program this year but provided enough money to let Taylor and his seven classmates graduate.

Adam Dempsey, one of the last graduates of Suffolk Public Schools Sentara Obici Hospital School of Practical Nursing, celebrates with the school’s director, Gwen Sweat, after the final graduation on Thursday at King’s Fork Middle School.

The eight students celebrated their accomplishment with family and friends at King’s Fork Middle School Thursday evening. But for many present, their joy for the graduates was marked by a touch of sadness that the program is ending.

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“I think it’s been a rewarding partnership, so it’s sad to see the program end,” said Phyllis Stoneburner, vice president for patient care services at Sentara Obici Hospital. “But it’s wonderful for the graduates. So it’s a bittersweet night.”

The school began in 1959 and graduated its first class in 1960, said Gwen Sweat, director of the school.

“History is a wonderful trail,” she said. “Tonight with the class of 2013, the trail concludes for the school, but this is only in theory — not in memories and not in contributions to the community.”

The school’s incredible track record spoke for itself Thursday night — a 90-percent job placement rate and 97-percent pass rate on the NCLEX exam that hopeful nurses must pass to be licensed.

“We remain confident in knowing Suffolk Public Schools Sentara Obici Hospital School of Practical Nursing has been successful and has been an icon for the community,” said Gail Bess, coordinator of career and technical education and adult education for Suffolk Public Schools.

Even this year’s students didn’t want the program to end, they said.

“I didn’t want to be last,” Taylor said. But, he added, “I felt good bringing up the rear.”

“It’s sad they’re closing the program, added Adam Dempsey, another graduate.

Thursday night’s other graduates were Sarah Beverly, Judith Bracy, Brian Crouch, Me’chele Cutchin, Amy Neprud and Lindsey Stiegler.

The ceremony included a slideshow of photos from throughout their year of classes and clinical sessions. They also heard a speech from Dr. Jennifer Reed of Sentara Surgery Specialists.

Award recipients in the class were Brian Crouch, who was valedictorian and achieved perfect attendance; Adam Dempsey, who received an award from the Pilot Club of Suffolk; and Judith Bracy, who received the Class Ambassador award voted by her classmates.

The Suffolk Ruritan Club and Sentara Obici Hospital Auxiliary were recognized for providing scholarships for students throughout the years.

For Sweat, who has been with the school since 1982 and been director since 1987, it was an especially emotional night, even more so than usual.

“Every graduation is always special,” said Sweat, who began working for the school division in 1979 as a school nurse.

She said she plans to retire but does not yet know what she’ll do in retirement. She does know it will include spending more time with her family, gardening and, yes, still reading medical books.

“I don’t feel like I’m ready to sit down in a rocking chair yet,” she said.