PEORIA — Most of Rhonda Thomas's 2,500 students will never set foot in her small classroom. Instead, she meets them by their hospital beds.

The room, packed with school supplies, books, computers and the desks of the three staff members who comprise the pediatric school inside the Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, serves as ground zero for the small staff and group of volunteers who help the thousands of school-age children who spend time in the hospital each year. Some of them may stay only a day or two for an unexpected illness or injury; others will spend weeks or months in the hospital with catastrophic injuries or chronic illnesses. Nearly all of them will meet Thomas or one of her colleagues, Lauren Halverson and Paula Scott.

"I don’t think I could go back to a classroom. It’s just really an amazing job," said Thomas, who serves as administrator, teacher, tutor and go-between for families and school districts.

Five mornings a week, Thomas and Halverson meet on the sixth floor of the Children's Hospital and read through a list of school-age children staying in the hospital. They review the child's medical chart, looking for those who are expected to stay in the hospital at least a few days while also analyzing which of them are well enough to handle schoolwork. 

Many of the names are familiar — patients from the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital clinic, those with illnesses who require long stays in the hospital, or those chronically ill who visit frequently for short stays. Some are not.

“Teachers like routine. You have something you do every day. Your kids walk into your class, they know what’s expected of them and they do it. It’s like a well-oiled machine," said Halverson. Both she and Thomas worked in special education in public schools before moving to the hospital-based program, a collaboration between the hospital and Peoria Public Schools. "Here, every day you walk in and you have no idea what’s going to happen. You might have a kid that you saw a year ago come in and is going to be here again. You might have a handful of kids you’ve never met that you have to start working with."

The staff divides the patients who need to be seen. In general, Halverson, who most recently taught third grade, will see the youngest patients, while Thomas, a former teacher at Manual Academy, handles the teenagers. Scott, a teacher's aide, will see as many as needed, including any Spanish-speaking students.

Some days they have volunteers who help by tutoring students; often they do not.

The three women serve as their own K-through-12 school, perhaps teaching letter sounds to a kindergartner and middle school math to a teen in the same afternoon. Whenever possible, they reach out to the student's regular school to get coursework directly from their teachers. When that's not possible they've got their own curriculum to teach.

They serve not just as teachers, but a major relief for parents, who don't have to worry about contacting the school or shuttling assignments back and forth, and advocates for students whose medical crisis interrupts their education.

Thomas recalls once when a student heard from her high school that she wouldn't be allowed to graduate, despite having completed piles of schoolwork during her stint in the hospital.

“I keep hard copies of everything, so I took my big stack and went to the school, sat it on the desk and I said, 'I need this teacher,'" Thomas said.

“And she graduated, and that was the goal."

It's both regimented — a series of spreadsheets and divide-and-conquer approach allow the small staff to have a wide reach — and flexible. The teachers are navigating not just a sampling of grade levels, but each student they teach is dealing with some degree of medical emergency. 

For Dominick Harris, who misses up to three days of kindergarten a week for chemotherapy sessions, his work with Halverson is not just helping him keep up on the work he misses, but get ahead with extra one-on-one attention.

"He's doing awesome. (His teacher) always says how advanced he is," said his mother, Rachel Newell, noting the 5-year-old already is working on addition.

Both parents and teachers are grateful for the pediatric school services, but for the staff, the biggest rewards come from the kids.

“With the little kids I’m teaching them how to walk or how to crawl or how to get in and out of bed. … And I loved that feeling of, ‘I get it. I can do this!’" Scott said. "When you’re teaching them to write or to do their math or whatever, you still get that ‘I can do this!’ sort of look, which I enjoy.”

 

Laura Nightengale is the Journal Star health and lifestyle reporter.  She can be reached at 686-3181 and lnightengale@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauranight.