November 19, 1999

School always in session at Children’s Hospital

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Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital teacher Chris Gray (left) goes over a lesson with patient Randy Dixon. (photo by Dana Johnson)

School always in session at Children's Hospital

Randy Dixon isn't wrapping up his high school career the traditional way, such as by finishing his schoolwork at Knox County's Powell High School and socializing with friends.

Instead, the 17-year-old Powell, Tenn., resident attends an alternative type of high school, one whose class meets every day in Dixon's seventh-floor hospital room at Vanderbilt University Hospital.

His lessons are supplied by his teacher at Powell High School and carried out by Chris Gray, the new teacher at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital.

Dixon suffers from cardiomyopathy and is waiting for a heart transplant, having spent the past six weeks of his senior year of high school at Vanderbilt. It's not the way he would have liked to graduate, but he's grateful that his hospitalization didn't delay the completion of his public education.

He'll receive his diploma as planned in December, thanks to VCH's school program and Gray, who arrived here in June.

The educational program at VCH is accredited as a transient school by the Tennessee Department of Education, allowing it to offer private school services for students hospitalized longer than two weeks. VCH is the only major hospital in the state with the accreditation.

Dixon's course load includes Latin, economics and American government. He credits the hospital's school program with allowing him to graduate on schedule.

"Chris gets my work from my teachers and helps me when I need help. It's the only way I could have done this," he said.

Gray, a Franklin, Ky., native, taught for four years at Franklin Simpson Middle School before coming to Vanderbilt. He holds the equivalent of a Master's degree from Western Kentucky University, in special education.

Gray works with two volunteers who help him reach the 15 or so students each week who need daily help with their coursework. Another 10 patients each week receive casual assistance, such as setting up homebound teachers for when they return home or arranging for such items as computers, dictionaries or other school reference materials in their hospital rooms.

All in all, the VCH teacher sees around 1,000 patients each year.

"I really enjoy working with the children and young adults here. You can develop relationships much easier than you can in a classroom with 30 kids and that's what I enjoy most about it."

The transient program works like this:

If a child is expected to be out of school for two weeks or more, they are eligible for homebound services. VCH can contract with the child's home county to provide these services. With the permission of the child's physician and parent or guardian, Gray initiates contact with the child's school to develop a suitable educational plan.

Sometimes the teachers will send everything that is needed and sometimes the teacher will simply leave it up to Gray to provide classes for the child. Gray has many teaching resources on hand — textbooks on numerous subject areas ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade can be found in the schoolroom. He also often uses computer software to teach reading and math skills.

Gray's patients range from long-term patients — those expected to be at VCH for two weeks or more — to "frequent flyers," those in and out of the hospital several times over a long period.

Even the location of the hospital-based work varies. Sometimes the classes are held in the child's hospital room, but if he or she is well enough, the classes are held in the sixth-floor Children's Hospital classroom.

Gray works around the patients' schedules, which can be quite a challenge.

"Flexibility is a big thing. You might have school scheduled at 1 p.m., then you get to the hospital room and find out the child has had tests run and is just beginning to eat lunch. Then you come back and the doctor is in the room. You have to be flexible. It's impossible to have a normal school day."

The subjects vary too, and pretty much anything goes. Since his students range from kindergartners to high school seniors, Gray must know a little bit about a lot of subjects.

A visit to his sunny classroom shows the variety.

A Modern Chemistry book sits above Green Eggs and Ham.

"I may have to teach any subject any day. It's very challenging and sometimes I have to ask for assistance. I don't know of any teacher who can teach all subjects," Gray said.