By Matt Englund
The UNC Hospital School commemorated their 50th anniversary with a celebration for students on October 8th that featured members of the UNC Cheerleading squad and public celebration on the 9th that featured a speaking program and tours of school facilities.
In spite of its long history, the school is one of the less well-known services offered to pediatric patients at UNC Hospitals, says Nancy Yoder, UNC Hospital School principal.
“We want people to know that we are here and willing to provide services to our kids, year round if necessary,” she says.
Schooling at the N.C. Memorial Hospital began in 1961, when a few local educators began to tutor children in order to help them keep up with their studies while hospitalized. By 1965, the program was the first accredited hospital school in the state.
First housed in a classroom on the 7th floor of Memorial Hospital, the school was small in its early days – with two teachers serving approximately 50 students.
Today, the school is part of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district and meets children’s educational needs through two departments – the neurosciences program, which serves students with psychiatric and emotional disorders, and the pediatric program, which serves students who are inpatients and those who visit the clinics on a regular basis. It has a permanent staff of 17 and helps over 2,700 children annually.
One of these children is Harrison Barnett, a lively and curious seven-year-old who travels to Chapel Hill from his home in Wilson three times a week to receive dialysis at UNC Hospitals. His mother, Becky Barnett, says that the school has helped Harrison stay on track with his studies.
“Three times a week he has to miss half a day of school,” she says. “But his teachers at Wilson Christian Academy send work along with him when he comes to Chapel Hill so he can stay caught up.”
The services provided by the school are available to any school age patients well enough to receive instruction, Yoder says.
“Our teachers go visit the kids’ rooms every day. Sometimes it’s possible for them to do school and sometimes it’s not. It depends on how they’re feeling and what medical procedures they may have scheduled for the day,” she says.
Students who are well enough receive instruction in a classroom setting – on 2 Children’s for students in the neurosciences program, on 7 Children’s for those in the pediatric program, as well as in smaller classrooms in the N.C. Cancer Hospital.
Faith Becker, a teacher in the pediatrics program, describes the school’s classroom with an analogy. “Think of a one room school house. We teach all grades. Sometimes we have a group of different grades, sometimes they are closer in ages, depending on which students are able to come to the classroom.”
Students who are not able to leave their rooms can receive individualized instruction at bedside.
Collaboration and flexibility are crucial to meeting each child’s needs, says Becker.
“In pediatrics, we meet each morning with the child and their family, and we get input from the nurses and doctors too. A child’s schedule might be different each day – maybe they have a procedure in the morning or they’ve not been feeling well in the afternoon. Each day it changes and each day it’s a decision that’s made among the family, the student, the medical staff and the teacher.”
For students in the neurosciences program, the daily routine is more regular but collaboration remains important. Val Shumate, a teacher in the neurosciences program, says this regularity helps teachers and medical personnel stay on the same page about student needs.
“In the neurosciences program, our teachers meet every morning at nine with the medical treatment teams to decide who is eligible to go to school that day and find out any other information that might affect a child’s schooling for the day.”
Hospital school teachers work with community schools to design learning plans based on assignments from students' community schools and the NC Standard Course of Study that are individualized to meet each student's unique needs. Hospital school teachers also act as liaisons between the medical teams and community schools to ensure students' successful transition back to school.
Barnett appreciates the work the school has done to keep her son on track. “If Harrison didn’t have the school, he would be so far behind that it would be a constant frustration for him. He’s been attending school for two full years, but he has been in the classroom at Wilson Christian fewer than 180 days.”
With the help of his teachers at the hospital school, Harrison has been able to keep up with his school work. “As far as where he is academically, you wouldn’t know he’s missed so much school. He’s right on track with his peers,” say Barnett.
Visits like these can be incredibly important for students because they can help provide them with a sense of regularity in what is, for most, an uncommon experience. These enrichment opportunities fit into the school’s broader goal of providing students with something more than just education, says Yoder.In addition to the day to day educational support the school offers to students, teachers work to provide enrichment opportunities for children who, because of their health problems, are unable to enjoy field trips and assemblies.
“We do our best to help provide our children with a feeling of normalcy,” says Yoder. “Our school can meet needs beyond academic development. For some it provides an opportunity to get out of their hospital room and for those that can’t leave their room it gives them a chance to engage with someone other than a nurse or a doctor.”
For 50 years, the UNC Hospital School has worked to provide this sense of routine that comes with being expected to complete one’s homework, but that expectation carries with it an optimistic message.
“Because we expect these kids to keep up with their school work” says Becker, “it gives them the expectation that they’re going to get better and that gives them hope.”
To learn more about the UNC Hospital Schools, visit their website at http://unchs.chccs.k12.nc.us/