Children's Hospital school program brings normalcy to young patients in for long stays

Academics, social connections both critical

CINCINNATI -- While Mitch Stone was battling a life-threatening brain tumor that necessitated surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, he was also fighting to keep up with the rigors of fifth and sixth grade.

Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center helped the Anderson Township native knock out both.

"I was diagnosed right in the middle of the school year," said Stone, now in remission and a sophomore at the University of Cincinnati. "(The treatments) take a lot out of you, but it was important to me to keep up with my school work and stay on pace with my classmates."

Thousands of kids face a similar dilemma each year during extended hospital stays like Stone's that occur during the school year. A longstanding hospital school program at Cincinnati Children's relieves some of that burden and helps keep patients connected to their classrooms.

Teacher Mary Beth Platen works with Branson Hubbard.  (Photo provided)

"The program allows children to receive direct instruction during hospitalization either bedside or in small groups in a classroom setting," said Megan Elam, director of Cincinnati Children's Center for School Services and Educational Research. The center formed last October and brought together the hospital school program, a school intervention program and an educational research component.

"Academic continuity is really important, but the program also promotes normalcy and social connectedness," she said.

The center employs more than a dozen certified teachers and even a school program principal to meet the academic needs of patients undergoing medical or psychiatric care. Volunteers, including college students and retired teachers, also help out with the program.

The teaching staff works closely with parents and collaborates with each patient's school to create individualized lessons and a learning plan, Elam said.

The main goals are helping patients stay caught on their school work and keeping them connected to their schools so their transition back to the classroom will be as seamless as possible.

It's rewarding and challenging work that requires a lot of flexibility, said Scott Menner, principal of Cincinnati Children's hospital school program.

"Our teachers can go from working on first-grade math with one child to teaching AP calculus to the next," he said. "When we're hiring someone, one of the things we look for is experience working with different grade levels."

Just like in a traditional school setting, teachers at Cincinnati Children's specialize in different content areas, he said. While patients' medical treatment always comes first, the children typically get an hour of either one-on-one or group instruction through the program each day.

For some, it's their favorite part of the day, Menner said.

"After being in their room, with nurses coming in and out, they're excited to feel normal again and focus on schoolwork for a while," he said. "They know they can do the work and keep up with their class, and they feel good about it."

For kids who are hospitalized for an extended period of time, and those who require frequent hospital stays, that hour of normalcy is a welcomed distraction, Stone said.

"You miss learning," he said. "You really miss your friends."

Patients can stay connected with their classrooms through Skype and FaceTime, Stone said.

That connection and added support is especially important for kids battling life-threatening or chronic illnesses, he said.

Support during their transition back to school is also important. Before patients return to school, staff at the hospital often develop a detailed transition plan that explains the child's illness or disability and how it may impact learning or behavior, Menner said.

"We're here to help every step of the way," he said. "Our goal is to try to eliminate as much stress as possible."

With the help of the program and tutors at school, Stone said he had a smooth transition back to middle school in 2010, a year after he was diagnosed.

To give back, he started Mitch's Mission, a nonprofit that raises funds to pay for children with cancer or blood diseases to attend summer camp. All the children are patients at the Cincinnati Children's Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute.

Today, Stone studies operations management at UC. He plans to go into hospital administration and hopes to eventually work at Cincinnati Children's.

He shared his success story on the hospital's blog last year.

"Everyone my age has a story of how they got to their freshman year of college. The grade school, junior high and high school tales that made them who they are and shaped who they want to be," he wrote. "In my case, I had an atypical experience in the fifth and sixth grades that influenced the future path I want to take and the gratitude that I feel for the people who helped me along the way."

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