Last spring, Alexa, then 5, sat up in her bed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, her green- and purple-painted toenails peeking out from the blanket. It was school time, and she smiled at her teacher, Colleen Cerebe, one of seven full-time teachers in CHOP’s Hospital School Program.
Together, they filled out the daily calendar and got ready to read Knuffle Bunny Too, one of Alexa’s favorite books. “I like books,” she says. “I like writing, too.”
For Alexa, who was being treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, her daily school time added structure and normalcy to her day. And it ensured she was staying on track with her peers.
Alexa is home now — in remission and doing well. Her mother, Laritza D’Amato, says she appreciates the program for all it gave Alexa. “It kept her in the mode and discipline of school and allowed her to keep up with her fellow kindergarteners,” Laritza says. “It was wonderful at keeping her motivated in general. I’m so happy she was able to access the program.”
Bringing normalcy to the abnormal circumstances of being hospitalized and helping children keep up academically are two key reasons CHOP offers its Hospital School Program. Patients who have been hospitalized for two weeks and are expected to stay at CHOP for at least two more weeks qualify for schooling. And children with chronic conditions, such as sickle cell disease and Crohn’s disease, that result in frequent hospitalizations attend school any time they are an inpatient.
CHOP’s teachers reach out to the child’s home school, asking for curriculum and lesson plans. The Hospital also seeks reimbursement for teaching time from patients’ home school districts, but the fee covers only about one-third of the cost for the service. In fiscal year 2015, teachers, including per diem help when needed, taught 214 children from 155 different school districts for 3,131 total hours.
Some children, like Alexa, have one-on-one teaching time. Others go to a room on their unit for class with other patients. While teachers try to group children of similar age, it’s not always possible. “I’ve had days when one minute I’m working on colors and shapes with a kindergartener and the next minute I’m helping a junior figure out a calculus problem,” says Jamie Johnson, a certified special education teacher. “You definitely need to be nimble in this job.”
Johnson spends most of her time working with children who are recovering from brain injuries. Occupational, speech and physical therapists are also on hand as patients spend two hours a day in cogitative communication class, relearning skills like raising their hands, getting in and out of a desk, opening a combination lock, and other tasks that may be difficult as they compensate for their injuries.
There are days when Nia, 16, a junior at Camden County Technical Vocational School who is fighting cancer, can’t wait to get back to school to continue her classes in medical coding and technology. But in the meantime, she is tutored by teacher Gemma Magnusson. “I don’t want to get left back,” Nia says.
Magnusson uses the hour they have together each day to focus on math and history. She contacted the school and arranged for Nia’s physical and occupational therapy sessions to count as physical education credit.
“Advocating for our patients is part of the job,” says Magnusson.