In the classroom at Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California, there are no desks. Students position themselves however they can – wheeling up to a table, adjusting a lap tray or watching from a mobile hospital bed. A papier-mache dinosaur commandeers the corner opposite the door.
The school day for kindergarten through sixth-graders starts at 9:30 a.m. with a lesson on times and dates, and a “good morning” song. Cubbies hold patients’ homework, either sent from their home schools or assigned by Shriners teachers. Cutting class is not allowed, unless a patient’s treatment demands it.
The hospital, located in Sacramento across from the UC Davis Medical Center, serves children up to age 18 suffering from conditions within five specialties – burns, orthopaedics, spinal cord injury, cleft lip repair and pediatric surgery. Patients at Shriners often have serious conditions that require long hospital stays and weeks of physical therapy. Burn patients, for example, typically stay in the hospital one day for each 1 percent of the body that is burned.
The Shriners classroom exists to provide regular education for children during treatment and recovery, and to help them cope with any changes in their abilities. In a school setting, that can mean navigating a wheelchair and other assistive technology or learning to interact with peers, said Margaret Kugler, coordinator of educational and vocational services for the hospital.
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“When they come here, the food they eat, the bed they sleep in, none of that is normal,” she said. “Play and school are normal for kids, so we try to integrate that in their treatment. We make sure they come out, even if they’re in beds, or can’t get dressed or are in hospital gowns. We encourage them to come any way they can for that interaction.”
The school, located on the second floor of the hospital, is a joint program between Shriners and Sacramento City Unified School District serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade. It launched in 1997, when the facility opened, and serves between 10 and 25 students per day, depending on patient flux.
The singular classroom is staffed by two special education teachers from the district, an instructional aide and several volunteers. Teaching occurs four hours per day – two in the morning for kindergarten through sixth-graders, and two in the afternoon for seventh- through 12th-graders. The space is designed to cater to all ages, with shelves of heavy textbooks and computer stations, as well as colorful posters and craft supplies galore.
Staff members work with the patient’s home school to tailor a curriculum based on what he or she was doing before hospitalization. Shriners patients arrive from all over the western United States, as well as from Mexico and Canada.
“Our goal is to keep them from falling behind, and make their transition back to school seamless,” Kugler said.
During a special program last week, patients filled the in-hospital classroom to participate in a video conference with California Department of Parks and Recreation interpreter Vonnie Lemke, who talked to them in real time from a studio in Santa Cruz. The images and video playing behind her were captured at Año Nuevo State Reserve in Pescadero, one of the largest mainland breeding centers for northern elephant seals.
Lemke went into detail about the elephant seal’s size and eating habits, showing off a nasal bone as toddlers and teens alike watched the screen. It was part of the California State Parks’ PORTS program, short for Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students, which now aims to use technology to deliver state park lessons that adhere to new Common Core State Standards.
The program has been up and running at California schools for about 10 years but launched at Shriners – its first hospital partner – in September. The elephant seal lesson was the third installment of PORTS at Shriners, following one on tide pool ecology and another about redwood forests. When possible, staff members at the Shriners school create educational components to go along with the program, such as growing a potted redwood tree in the classroom.
“This is a great way to help these kids experience the treasures of California, and also to give them something else to focus on,” said Heather Holm, PORTS program coordinator.
Paulina Villaescuza, 9, said her favorite part of the video conference was learning how long elephant seals can hold their breath under water – up to two hours.
“It’s cool!” she said after the presentation. “It’s interesting for people who like animals.”
Paulina said science is her favorite subject, and that she’d like to see an elephant seal in person someday. The fourth-grader, who has burns on her arms and chest, is from Hermosillo, Mexico, and lives at the nearby Sacramento Ronald McDonald House while receiving treatment.
Ron Kremer, a retired Sacramento City Unified School District math and science teacher who has been volunteering in the Shriners classroom for 13 years, said all kids, regardless of ability level, need concrete examples in order to stay engaged. He’s led Shriners students in a number of hands-on projects, including building a model pueblo and making a craft turkey out of a pumpkin. He said he admired the children for their “bravery and perseverance.”
“You’d think in a hospital you’d hear angry or sad noises, but you hear laughter,” he said. “These kids overcome. Our job is to help them overcome. We’re here to enable them so they can get on with the business of life.”
Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.