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UNC Hospital School Shines for Students and Families

At the start of each weekday morning at the UNC Hospital School, the Pediatric staff gathers for its team meeting to determine the census of students and divvy them up by medical service and caseload. Teachers in the Neurosciences Hospital attend morning meetings with the treatment team to learn about new students and any new information about their current caseload. The instructional team discusses the needs of the 75-100 Pre-K through twelfth grade students, whether they’re in the Hospital for only a day, or  for months at a time.

Hospital School patient A lesson might be as straightforward as reading to a child while she waits to be evaluated, or it could be a specific plan designed over weeks, in coordination with the student’s community school teacher, from any private, public or home school. The children and adolescents are all given the highest level of academic instruction, as well as compassionate and attuned emotional support. For teachers at the Hospital School, each day is different from the one before, and the one that will follow.

Once the team meetings have adjourned, teachers disperse to their first assignments, in a medical clinic, a hospital room, the psychiatric unit or  the emergency department. In one classroom for patients in the Eating Disorder Unit, tools for mindfulness and comfort are evident throughout, including an Explore.org webcam feed of kittens or puppies tumbling around a carpet. In another classroom, eight older elementary grade children listen to a lesson on volcanoes, seated in a horseshoe formation, eyes on their entertaining and lively science teacher before they each create their own tiny volcanic explosions at their desks.

Marny Ruben has been the principal of the UNC Hospital School since 2017, after many years leading Seawell Elementary School. She possesses a smile that truly sparkles, and her calm, clear style of interaction and supervision seems perfectly suited for the work she does now. She has built and extended a highly skilled instructional team comprised of 15 teachers from several traditional CHCCS schools, as well as schools from other districts. Most teachers are certified in Exceptional Children Education; all of them are learning every day on the job, gaining deeper understanding and familiarity with their students’ medical and psychiatric conditions. 

baby at Hospital School As its webpage notes, “The UNC Hospital School is a one-of-a-kind school in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School district. The school provides year-round educational services to school-age patients, so they will be able to continue their studies with as little interruption as possible. The Hospital School is funded by the taxpayers of North Carolina just like any other public school, so there are no charges associated with our services.”

David Bennard, 2019 Teacher of the Year for the Hospital School, and CHCCS alumnus, said, “The bond that we are so fortunate to be a part of is so unique. As staff, we often teach children who are unable to go to school, due to treatment and illnesses, and we provide a service that allows our students to have a level of normalcy, control, and hope that has been lacking since they were first diagnosed.” Bennard taught in Granville County Schools for 13 years before returning home.

For a school serving dozens of students on any given day, the number of actual classrooms is small. Some students, especially those in Hematology/Oncology, cannot be exposed to a revolving population of classmates, so teachers work bedside or on the unit where they are being treated. Makerspace Carts are stocked with a wide array of learning activities. All books in the school that students are given are single-use because they are porous and can’t be completely sanitized, so the school is always in need of new book and art supply donations. 

“Working in the Hospital School is similar to working in a regular school in that it requires a great deal of flexibility but one of the main differences is the unusual setting and diverse staff we work with, including doctors, nurses, therapists (physical, occupational, recreational), etc.” said Eating Disorder Unit/Emergency Department teacher Kirsten Bergman. She is relatively new to the Hospital School, after many years teaching ESL at the Newcomers Center at Culbreth Middle and at Estes Hills Elementary. “Collaborating with these staff and their different disciplines to help provide the best educational services to the student-patient is quite different than what I have experienced in any of my other teaching positions and is very rewarding.”

The Pediatric program serves students who are inpatient as well as those visiting clinics on a regular basis. Services might include assessments, direct instruction, special needs referrals, and ongoing liaison between the Hospital and community school. Instruction is based on the community school's assignments when available, as well as the North Carolina public schools curriculum.

Ruben admits that her many years at Seawell provide her with invaluable knowledge of existing resources for Hospital School students, from the district as well as the wider community. Once a week, a “troubadours” program brings in storytellers, magicians and artists to Pediatrics and Psychiatric patients for enrichment. The NC Zoo brings in small animals and hands-on activities. Wonder Connection, a unique volunteer outreach program, provides patients with a connection to the natural world through STEAM, hands-on activities. 

Hospital school student Some of the students reside in the hospital and work with the school staff for many weeks. Children with certain forms of cancer might be in the hospital for months, while others come and go for treatments, or with relapse and remission cycles. Students with cystic fibrosis are often admitted for two week periods of treatment before returning home. The relationships formed over time, during significant peaks and valleys of their physical and mental health, are often very different from relationships formed in traditional classrooms.

Tania Agosto teaches many children in the Hematology/Oncology unit. She is soft-spoken and smiling as she interacts with her students for their hour lessons. One recent morning, Agosto sat down with her middle-school aged student who has been in the Hospital since December. The two are playful together, but Agosto is quick to ascertain if her student is tiring or losing focus. They laugh over a book, practice spelling words together, and then it is time to put the books away and work on math. 

“I love the strength of relationships we build with families here at our school,” said Bennard, who also specializes in Hematology/Oncology support. “I will never forget a rising kindergarten student of mine, fighting cancer, who I taught every day. He was never able to attend his ‘first day of school’ with his peers, due to his treatment. One day during our instruction, his mother asked me if she could take a picture of us as I was teaching bedside in his room. This mother posted our picture as his First Day of kindergarten with his teacher. It was an honor I will never forget or take for granted as a father and a teacher!”

The Neurosciences program serves students with psychiatric disorders. Elementary, middle and high school classrooms operate each weekday with the goals of diagnosing learning difficulties, advocacy for appropriate services, providing liaison to the student's community school and delivering individually planned education in small-groups. For many students receiving psychiatric treatment, especially middle and high school students, the need for inpatient support peaks during exam times back in their community schools. During the summer or holidays, the number of psychiatric patients can be substantially lower. Ruben said the staff is always monitoring their students’ stress levels, because the stressors can be so directly tied to their community school challenges.

Grace Richmond, a teacher in Neurosciences, has worked in various EC positions for 20 years, including at the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, Florida and McDougle Middle School. “When a student is admitted to the in-patient psychiatry unit it is because there has been a crisis in their lives,” Richmond said. “The most important thing that we can provide for our students is to make learning fun, while they are in a safe and nurturing space."  

In a school program where as many as 20 or 25 students pass away in a year, the staff needs to monitor and honor their own self-care strategies. Spending four or five days a week, reading to a child in the final stages of an illness, can take a significant toll on that teacher. Ruben notes the unusual beauty and power of a teacher providing specialized supports for a child or adolescent who may be hours away from death. “The family often wants them there, pretty much until the end,” she said.

Ruben worked with UNC Hospitals to apply for a grant for trauma and self-care support for their teachers. A trained trauma facilitator comes quarterly to provide professional development for the staff in groups and once a month to allow for one on one sessions. “Often, a teacher might be the only non-medical person interacting with the patient and the family on a daily basis,” Ruben said. The toll can be significant. Hospital School staff

One of the challenges for everyone at the Hospital School is preparing their students for transition back to their community schools, some for a prescribed amount of time before returning to the hospital, others who are being discharged for good. Before students leave the hospital, teachers communicate with their community school teachers back home. They also work closely with parents to support that transition to the next educational placement, or to status as homebound students until their condition allows for them to integrate into broader settings. “The medical staff rely on us to understand how to transition students back to schools,” Ruben said.

“Working at the Hospital School gives me an even greater appreciation for school counselors and other support staff in a school,” said Bergman. “A student who has been a patient at the hospital and returns to their regular school needs the support of these support staff, and it's a pleasure to work with so many concerned support staff around the state and beyond, as overworked as I know they are.” 

“The hospital school is such an incredible journey to me as a teacher,” Bennard said. “We, as a staff, work with students, teachers, guidance counselors, and parents from all over our state. We provide the gift of learning to students and families going through the most challenging time in their lives. CHCCS has supported not only their own students; by creating a school with UNC Hospital, but for ALL students! It’s an honor for me to represent ALL teachers and our profession.”

 Learn more about the history of the UNC Hospital School.