Children's Mercy Hospital-Based School helps kiddos keep up with classwork and ‘feel more normal’
When she was a classroom teacher, Gayle Domsch, EdD, typically spent the first days of a new school year attending curriculum meetings, putting up bulletin boards and setting expectations for incoming students in basics like how to walk quietly down the hall.
But recently, Gayle’s first week of teaching for the new school year was more like this:
“I have a preschooler for cognitive stimulation, a kindergartener, a 4th grader for math, and an 8th grader for Spanish and science,” said Gayle, one of three teachers in Children’s Mercy’s Hospital-Based School program. “I checked in with seven high school students who are just starting classes, and met with social workers to talk about school needs emerging after the first three days of classes.”
Back-to-school week for Gayle’s fellow hospital-based school teachers Lori Simpson, BS, and Shawna Mazeitis, MA, were similarly diverse: setting up technology to connect patients with their classrooms, quelling the anxiety of a 6th grader anxious about missing the first day of middle school, enrolling a young cancer patient in kindergarten to help his overwhelmed mom, and organizing assignments for a high school student scheduled for heart surgery so she can start her classwork once she’s out of ICU.
While medical treatment takes precedence for seriously and chronically ill children, academic work at their instructional level is important to their well-being, too. And that makes Children's Mercy’s Hospital-Based School, one of only about 60 such programs in pediatric hospitals across the country, a vital component of care.
“These kids need and deserve the same education everyone else takes for granted,” Gayle said. “They are battling for their lives, and just want to be normal and have school like all their friends.”
“School is like a job for kids,” added Shawna. “Having school in the hospital eases their anxiety and gives them a piece of normalcy back. Plus, they think, ‘if I still have to do homework, maybe I’ll be okay.’”
Or as Lori puts it: “Getting them in school helps them get better.”
A small but mighty team
Children's Mercy’s Hospital-Based School services are available at the Adele Hall Campus to elementary and secondary school-age children hospitalized more than five days or receiving lengthy outpatient treatment, according to Kim Robertson, MBA, MT-BC, Manager-Music Therapy and Hospital-Based School.
Bedside school instruction is available September through May for students from any school district in the region, public, private or home-schooled, with summer learning experiences offered in June, July and August.
As the three teachers on staff working year-round, full- and part-time schedules, Gayle, Lori and Shawna are certified and licensed in Missouri and Kansas, and together bring a nearly a century of teaching experience to their work. As many as 10 volunteers, also certified teachers, supplement their school-year efforts.
That experience matters in meeting the instructional needs of children of all ages in multiple subjects, and entails everything from initial assessment and developing individualized instruction plans to helping with homework and advocating for families with teachers and administrators at the child’s home school.
“The average absence for the kids I work with is 24 days, and schools often don’t know how to cope with the interruption,” said Gayle, who works primarily with patients on dialysis and in rehabilitation for spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. “There is no practical way to make up everything they miss, but just excusing these kids from doing all the work and freezing their grades makes it difficult for them to re-engage in class when they return.
“The best scenarios are when the school prioritizes, collaborates and adapts so the patient/student is able to successfully complete enough work to learn, but doesn’t have so much they are overwhelmed and discouraged,” she said.
“Being a liaison with the school is becoming more important as the program grows,” Shawna added. Her patient group includes children with diagnoses for sickle cell, cancer, gastrointestinal and heart conditions, and she understands the importance of building good relationships with schools throughout the region to support children and their over-burdened parents.
“For kiddos with cancer, it’s important to find a time when they are feeling well enough to work. Sometimes we must set reasonable expectations with the classroom teacher,” Shawna said. “It’s a tightrope we walk.”
Lori works primarily with children living with cystic fibrosis and orthopedic conditions, so many of her students have missed a lot of learning over many years.
“Kids with cystic fibrosis have lived with a chronic disease their whole life, and have been absent from school repeatedly over time,” she said. “It’s hard on them and their families. But it’s our job to give them hope and motivation for their future.”
Despite the complexity, the rewards of teaching seriously and chronically ill children are many.
“For me, it’s a great day when I figure out what a child needs, create a lesson he or she likes to do and is able to complete it, even when not feeling well,” said Shawna.
For Lori, satisfaction comes in knowing her work has helped a high school student earn enough credits to graduate – and the academic success, personal growth and sense of normalcy she’s enabled in the process.
“Gayle and I recently put together a graduation gift for a student we’ve both worked with,” Lori said. “Her thank-you note acknowledged the items we’d given her, then added, ‘ultimately, thank you for always making me feel special and not treating me like I am sick. It means the world to me.’”
And for Gayle, it’s all about her students’ accomplishments.
“The heart of a teacher is the success of a student, and as hospital-based teachers we often lack the advantage a full school year provides to see students develop and grow to their potential. They come, we do what we can, and they go,” she said.
Learn more about the Hospital-Based School at Children's Mercy.