DULUTH — A partnership between an Iron Range school district and northern Minnesota's largest health system aims to put more students on a health care career track and keep them from moving south.

Duluth-based Essentia Health has earmarked $300,000 in post-secondary scholarships for the Rock Ridge school district, which recently consolidated to combine the districts of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert. Tuition payments of up to $30,000 will be awarded annually to students who want to study in areas of high need for Essentia, including respiratory therapy and technician work for radiology, surgery and lab departments.

Half of all future jobs in the Iron Range area will be in health care, said Rock Ridge superintendent Noel Schmidt.

In the past, he said, "kids were leaving the Range in droves because they thought there were no jobs up here; that the only jobs on the Range are in mining. When you look at the data, that's absolutely not true."

A career academy model for the new high school was chosen to build awareness of other available and growing job opportunities on the Iron Range, where populations shrank and unemployment mushroomed amid the brutal 1980s mining crash. The high school, built for 1,200 students, is under construction in Virginia near the border to Eveleth. In its academy model, some students will choose one of three career paths — trades, including engineering or manufacturing; health and human services; or business and technology — with general requirements embedded in each.

The education-to-employment program will help address critical shortages in health care staffing, Essentia says, and offer students a direct path to one of the largest employers in the region. Essentia employees will mentor students and help teachers develop curriculum . Details aren't finalized, but Essentia will welcome teachers and students into its facilities, and also work with them at the school.

"The academy program as I see it is really breaking down walls," said Sam Stone, administrator of Essentia's Virginia hospital. "It's getting different professions in front of students at an age where they are determining where they want to spend time investing in careers."

Essentia will require those who receive a scholarship to honor a one- to three-year commitment to work for the organization.

The new high school for grades 7-12 opens in 2023, part of a $180 million project that also includes two new elementary schools. Voters in each community approved a bond referendum in 2019 to help pay for the project, also funded in large part by the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, which reinvests taconite production taxes in the Iron Range.

Essentia gave the school district another $100,000 for naming rights for the high school's third-floor wing, which will house the health and human services academy.