Ballad Health Academy is launched; Task is to address labor shortage, create opportunities for students

BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. — Ballad Health and local educational partners on Thursday launched Ballad Health Academy, a new program aimed at providing educational opportunities for students and relieving the nursing labor shortage.

Officials from Ballad Health shared the news at West Ridge High School, one of the schools participating in the program, which will incorporate in-person, virtual and in-hospital education for students.

The program will integrate health care career knowledge and job training and provide opportunities for high school students to go directly into the workforce after graduating, officials said during the announcement.

Graduating students will have the opportunity to move directly into high-demand health care jobs with family-sustaining wages, according to Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine, who spoke about the nursing labor shortage that has affected hospitals around the country in recent years.

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The plan is to open the program in fall 2025, potentially serve more than 400 students and eventually expand to thousands of students around the region.

The initiative is part of a $250 million effort led by Bloomberg Philanthropies that is connecting healthcare and education systems to create new career and technical education schools in 10 urban and rural communities across the country, Levine said.

Bloomberg spokeswoman Jenny Kane said the Appalachian Highlands region stands out among the participating regions due to its rural nature. Kane spoke briefly via Zoom on Thursday.

Ballad Health officials said six schools across the region will participate in the program, including West Ridge High School and Sullivan East High School in Sullivan County; Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport; Tennessee High School in Bristol; Elizabethton High School and Greeneville High School.

In addition, several academic partners, including East Tennessee State University, Northeast State Community College, Walters State Community College and Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology in Elizabethton and Morristown are joining the efforts.

Ballad Health plans to expand the program into other areas of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, Levine said.

The company’s efforts to launch the program began in Wise County and Norton, Virginia, where the health system led the development of a career exploration program for fifth- to eighth-graders, according to a Ballad Health news release.

The new program is supported by an initial $15.3 million investment from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation led by former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, who spoke in a video presented to those attending Thursday’s announcement.

Ballad has committed $9 million to help establish the program.

The initiative will create virtual schools in partnership with each student’s own high school, offering an opportunity to gain direct work experience and access to jobs.

The ultimate goal is to provide opportunities for high school students and fill positions that have been vacated in recent years in the nursing field, Levine said.

“We had a labor shortage before COVID, but COVID poured gasoline on it,” Levine said.

Levine said hundreds of thousands of people are expected to leave the nursing field in the coming years.

“The health manpower labor shortage is an extreme crisis throughout the nation, and Ballad Health, our team members and our patients have experienced first-hand the difficulties resulting from the shortage,” Levine said. “Our region has the capability to contribute to solving this problem, and Ballad Health Academy will become a national model for how local communities can help fill these important workforce needs.”

Levine said the region was selected to participate in the program by Bloomberg “because of who we are and the scale of Ballad Health.”

In addition, Levine said Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin have shown support for the program, as well as Tennessee state senators Rusty Crowe and Jon Lundberg.

Ballad Health Chief Academic Officer Dr. Matthew Loos said the program marks the first time high school students in the area have been given an opportunity to begin working directly with the region’s largest employer.

Loos also announced that former Kingsport and Greeneville school superintendent Dr. Jeff Moorhouse will lead Ballad Health Academy.

Through Ballad Health Academy, students interested in science and service professions will be identified at the middle and early-high school level, and they can be enrolled in the pathway in the ninth grade, according to the news release. While working toward an LPN degree in high school, they will remain in their local public school and take core classes but overlay those studies with Tennessee College of Applied Technology and community college courses for dual credit.

Counselors will work with students throughout high school to schedule and sequence courses and navigate dual enrollment, so students have support to explore and navigate their paths and handle logistical tasks needed to get them to success, the release states.

Ballad Health and the local school systems will co-develop a high school curriculum, which will offer robust academic programming, specialized healthcare classes, work-based learning and the opportunity to earn industry-valued credentials and certifications along with traditional high school learning and diplomas, with a goal of graduating high school with the credentials and certifications to qualify the students for immediate full-time work opportunities.