The only one of its kind between San Francisco and Portland, Mendocino College’s Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) program has recently been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE), a laborious process that ensures that the school and its curriculum meet all the standards set by the professional group.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment rate for physical therapy assistants is projected to grow a whopping 32 percent from 2020 to 2030, far faster than the average for other occupations. This great need and strong job growth is what prompted Mendocino College to develop a PTA program a few years ago, says Program Director Sara Bogner, MS, DPT.

PTAs use interventions such as therapeutic exercise, neuromuscular re-education, electrical stimulation, and mobility training to help patients of various disabilities regain independence, reduce pain, and promote healing. They work under the supervision of a physical therapist.

The school’s five-semester program graduates students with an associate degree, all well prepared to take the national licensing exam. Students go through the program as a cohort, with a new class of up to 24 students admitted each January. It’s a mixed group, with some recently out of high school and others in their 30s exploring a second career. “The most important trait they can have is a desire to work with people. After all, they’ll be talking to and working with clients one-on-one each and every day,” says Bogner.

Mendocino’s program was developed in a hybrid format even before COVID made that essential. “We’re a rural community, and we structured the PTA program to ensure that students could enroll even if they lived out of the area,” explains Bogner. “All academic classes are online, so students can access them from anywhere. They come to campus two days a week for labs, which are essentially practicing what they have learned in theory.”

Learning the safety protocol required to transfer a patient from a bed to a chair, for example, is far different from actually doing it. Labs give students the opportunity to practice skills on one another, and the faculty ratio of 1:6 ensures that each student is well supervised. Labs are scheduled back-to-back, so students coming from a distance can stay in the area for a night if they choose.

The hybrid format has worked out beautifully for Logan MacMillan, who has completed his academic work and is now in the midst of his second clinical rotation. “I always found it difficult to listen and take notes in lectures, so the online classes allow me to take my time while taking notes, to fully understand the information and be prepared for the labs.”

Mendocino is fortunate to have formed the PTA program as a partnership with nearby Shasta College in Redding. Both were begun using Strong Workforce funding, and they work collaboratively to develop this career pathway. “While each of our programs is independent and has its own accreditation, the curriculum and policies are the same and have been developed in concert with the other. We share some of the same faculty, and we’re on each other’s advisory committees,” explains Bogner. “It’s a huge benefit, because colleges are generally limited as to how many faculty they can have in one department. This gives us a broader base to pull from, and makes both programs stronger.”

When it comes time to place students in clinicals, the college makes every effort to place them in facilities close to home. Finding clinical placements can be a challenge, Bogner admits, although the challenge is not unique to physical therapy. “Healthcare professionals are stretched so thin that they often don’t feel like they have the time to work with and mentor a student. This is something we struggle with across the country, yet I believe that we all need to give back to the profession by helping to train new students.”

Once graduating students pass their licensing exams, demand is high for their services in hospitals, clinics, private practices, or skilled nursing facilities. Starting salaries hover between $25-30 an hour in the Ukiah area, and higher closer to the city, says Bogner. Although many choose to continue as physical therapy assistants, others, like MacMillan, plan to eventually go on to become physical therapists, which requires a doctoral degree.