School program helps patients maintain sense of normalcy
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) — Every day when Fiza Youivis hears Lisa Black knock on the door, she shouts, "I'm ready for school!"
Recently, Black entered Fiza's hospital room at the University of Virginia Children's Hospital with a stack of books, worksheets and a fat yellow pencil. She pushed aside a pink, fluffy teddy bear and began guiding Fiza through writing letters and numbers.
"I know how to do it!" Fiza said, dragging the pencil to form a number seven.
Fiza, 5, loves the color pink, the Disney movie "Frozen" and going to the library. She hasn't been able to go to the library, though, or start her kindergarten year in Fairfax, because she is waiting for a heart transplant at the hospital.
At the Children's Hospital, though, she can participate in a special type of school: the Hospital Education Program, a partnership between the hospital, Charlottesville City Schools and the Virginia Department of Education. The three children's teaching hospitals in the state — UVa, Eastern Virginia Medical School and Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical Center — have all been required to run similar programs for decades.
The Children's Hospital school is available for any child who is admitted for treatment. Teachers lead classes, give one-on-one lessons, offer art therapy and make sure the students are ready to continue school at grade level when they return home.
"I'm so happy she's getting an education while she's getting treatment," said Fiza's mother, Sumera Iqbal. "I didn't know this was an option until we came here; I hope more parents can know this exists."
Black has taught at the hospital school for 17 years, working mostly with pre-K and kindergarten students. Lessons range from numbers, letters and colors to making "mermaid slime" with glitter glue and contact lens solution. If children are able, she teaches them in groups, so they can work on social skills.
Two students were diagnosed as having cancer and entered treatment at the hospital around the same time, said Deborah Johnson. They often went to class together and buddied up to work on assignments.
"They just felt comfortable together," Johnson said. "They understood what each other was going through."
School also helps give children a sense of normalcy, the teachers said.
"Kids know school," Johnson said. "They're tired of doctors, and they know teachers, so despite the eye-rolls when we say we're here to do school, they're usually happy to see us."
"We're normal for them," agreed Mae Remer, who mainly works with high school students. "For a lot of kids, it's the most normal part of their day."
The teachers are also responsible for preparing students for standard end-of-year tests. Remer brushed up on her chemistry to help a high-schooler pass his Standards of Learning test. She's also coached students on their college applications and interviews.
"We treat every kid with the assumption that they're going to get better, and so we have to prepare them to go back and be ready for whatever's next," Remer said.
The school is led by Eric Johnson, who recently began as principal after serving in that role at Buford Middle School in Charlottesville for 11 years.
"It's just inspiring to see these young folks be so resilient and so hopeful," Johnson said. He said he gets to be more hands-on in this position.
Fiza could be in the hospital for weeks or months while she waits for a new heart, and then will have to stay home for three more months while she recovers. Until then, Black said, she'll focus on keeping Fiza cheerful and making sure she knows how to write her name.
"Do you remember how to start?" Black asked.
Fiza began curving her pencil, then stopped and began again.
"First 'F,' silly me!"
Information from: The Daily Progress, http://www.dailyprogress.com