The site of the former Woodland Middle School in Duluth will become a place for education again, with a new $17.1 million College of St. Scholastica building expected to open next summer.

The three-story, 45,000-square-foot Health Science Pavilion will house the college's graduate occupational and physical therapy programs, along with a new physician assistant program, pending accreditation. All three will offer services through a free on-site clinic, called the Maurices Community Clinic. A groundbreaking for the building - set on about 3 acres - is scheduled to take place today.

The new location - in the BlueStone development site on Woodland Avenue, about a mile from the main Duluth campus - represents growth for St. Scholastica and a desire to meet the needs of the community, said President Larry Goodwin.

With nearly 70 percent of its students enrolled in health care or the sciences, "we want to claim this niche of values-based health care programming," he said - an idea in line with the school's Benedictine roots.

The college chose the BlueStone site because of its upscale housing, restaurants and shops. It's an area that graduate students would be drawn to, Goodwin said, because of the development's amenities. St. Scholastica bought the land from Stillwater, Minn.-based developer Mark Lambert. The college has created the separate nonprofit Health Sciences Education Facility Corporation to own the building and lease it to St. Scholastica.

Health care growth

All three programs to be housed in the new building produce clinicians in "very high demand," said Ron Berkeland, dean of the School of Health Sciences.

The general population is getting older, and people want to live independently, he said, meaning more work for the occupational and physical therapists who help people deal with ailments and things that hurt their ability to function.

"And it's no surprise there is a tremendous shortage of primary care medical providers," Berkeland said, with one option to fill that shortage being physician assistants. They can offer many primary care services, he said, allowing physicians to take on more complex cases. Because of the need for more health care workers in rural areas, St. Scholastica plans to focus on educating its students about rural primary care.

Both the occupational and physical therapy programs at St. Scholastica are full; the new building will allow more students to enroll. High numbers are expected for the physician assistant program, but that number will be capped at 28 students because of the difficulty in finding clinical internship sites for each student.

The new clinic will replace what's been happening on a smaller scale at St. Scholastica; both therapy programs have been offering services in a classroom setting three times a week. At the new building all three areas will work out of the same clinical setting, and offer more services more days a week throughout the year. The college is hoping the new location will be more accessible to those it aims to serve: the under- or uninsured and those who aren't eligible for reimbursed services. Students in the programs work through the entire process of seeing a patient, from assessment to discharge, under the supervision of faculty.

"There is a need in the community," said Steven Cope, chairman for the occupational therapy department. "And we think it's one of the best ideas for students."

Maurices gave the college a "major multiyear" gift to help pay for the clinic, but wouldn't disclose the amount.

The space on the Duluth campus vacated by the occupational and physical therapy programs will be renovated to make more room for nursing and other areas. A similar arrangement of health care programs tucked in with a retail/housing development is being explored in Arizona, where St. Scholastica also offers courses.