Health & Family

Charlotte’s century-old Mercy nursing school to close

Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, which opened 108 years ago in Charlotte, will close after current students graduate in 2016.

Officials of Carolinas HealthCare System, which has two other nursing schools in Charlotte and Concord, said the decision has nothing to do with the quality of Mercy’s program but was the result of an assessment of what is best for the system.

“This was not easy,” said Dr. Mary Hall, senior vice president for medical education and chief academic officer. “The school has been around for a long time. They’ve had a high-quality school.”

Hall notified faculty members, students and alumni of the school on Sept. 12. She said officials at Carolinas HealthCare have been reviewing nursing programs for the past year or two.

The decision comes as the system looks for ways to trim costs. Earlier this month, Carolinas HealthCare CEO Michael Tarwater announced the elimination of more than 100 management positions as part of a goal to cut $110 million in expenses from next year’s budget. He said the cuts are necessary, in part, because of declining reimbursements from federal programs and the refusal by both Carolinas to expand Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.

Carolinas HealthCare came to own the Mercy nursing school in 1995, when it purchased Mercy Hospital and Mercy Hospital South (now Carolinas Medical Center-Mercy and Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville, respectively) from the Sisters of Mercy, based in Belmont. The school has graduated almost 3,000 nurses over the years. The last class of 30 was enrolled in August.

The Mercy school, near Interstate 77 and West Arrowood Road, has 19 faculty members, including 17 registered nurses. Hall said she’ll encourage them to remain as long as the school has students.

Carolinas HealthCare also operates nursing schools at Carolinas College of Health Sciences on the campus of Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte and at Cabarrus College of Health Sciences, which it acquired with the purchase of CMC-NorthEast (formerly NorthEast Medical Center) in Concord in 2007.

Hall said those two schools produce a total of about 200 graduates a year, more than enough to supply nurses needed for Carolinas HealthCare facilities. “We didn’t hire all of the nurses that graduated,” she said. “They definitely go other places, too.”

Mercy is one of two remaining North Carolina nursing schools that issue diplomas instead of college degrees. The other diploma program is at Watts School of Nursing in Durham.

Until the 1960s, hospital-based diploma programs were the major source of registered nurses in the country. But the two- and three-year diploma programs began to decline in the 1970s as nursing education shifted from the apprentice model to instruction at the college and university level.

Carolinas College of Health Sciences offers two-year associate degrees in nursing, and the Cabarrus school offers both associate degrees and four-year bachelor degrees. “That’s what the world is asking for,” Hall said.

Lisa Foster, 49, a nurse educator at Carolinas Medical Center-Pineville, came to Mercy from Raleigh and graduated in 1986 when the school was on Vail Avenue, next to what was then Mercy Hospital. She has since earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. “Mercy gave me an amazing foundation,” she said.

Foster recalled the nurturing, homelike atmosphere in the dormitory, where nuns lived in a section of the second floor. “The Sisters of Mercy would be roaming through the hallways, just being friendly,” Foster said. “We loved that.”

As alumni association president, Foster said she’s already thinking about how to celebrate when the final class graduates in 2016. “Like everybody else, I’m very sad. But we will always be Mercy nurses. It’s very important that we keep that history and heritage alive.”