July 26, 1996

State accreditation opens door for Children’s Hospital school

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Child Life Teacher Mary Laurens Montgomery works with VCH patients Andrew Haag (left) and Michael Stanley

State accreditation opens door for Children's Hospital school

Mary Laurens Montgomery

Mary Laurens Montgomery

The education program at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital's has been accredited as a transient school by the Tennessee Department of Education, allowing VCH to offer private school services for students hospitalized longer than two weeks.

"Our basic philosophy is to make hospitalization as positive and normal an experience as we can," said Janet N. Cross, director of Child Life Patient Care Services. "Providing normal daily activities for children, like school, fits in well with our philosophy."

Vanderbilt Children's Hospital is the only major hospital in the state with the accreditation, Cross said.

"The services in Children's Hospital look at the whole child, not just the diagnosis or the disease," she said. We want to meet all of their needs – emotional, psychosocial and educational needs as well. It's really important for, say, a junior or senior in high school who's going to be here for three months. They could lose a whole year of school if they got behind."

Last January, Vanderbilt Children's Hospital hired Mary Laurens Montgomery, a former Jackson, Miss. school teacher, as Child Life Teacher. She holds a Master's Degree in special education and has dual certification in both elementary and special education.

At Vanderbilt, the transient school program works like this:

If it is anticipated that a patient in Children's Hospital will stay for more than two weeks, and his or her physician believes the patient to be well enough to do school work, Montgomery will contact the patient's family to see if the services are needed.

Once the family agrees that the child can be doing school work, Montgomery will contact the child's school, and together they work out the best educational plan for the child.

"Sometimes the teachers will send everything that we need, and sometimes the homeroom teacher will simply say the child is in the third grade, and I'm left on my own to provide classes for the child," Montgomery said.

Even the location of the hospital-based school work varies. Sometimes the classes are held in the child's hospital room, but if the child is well enough, the classes are held in the Children's Hospital classroom, which is equipped with books, computers and a globe as well as various other educational tools.

Montgomery typically works around the patient's schedule during daytime hours and, this school year, hopes to use volunteers to offer an evening program.

Montgomery usually follows Metro Davidson County's schedule, offering classes from August until June. She observes spring break, but there are no snow days at Vanderbilt. "It was a good time for us last year when Metro and the surrounding counties had snow days. My kids could catch up."

The transient school program at Vanderbilt has evolved over the past several years. Originally, Metro Davidson County provided educational services for hospitalized students eligible for homebound services.

However, after Davidson County assessed their services at Vanderbilt, they found that many of the students being taught were actually from other counties.

"That was not their responsibility. It was the responsibility of the county where the child actually resided," Cross said.

Metro decided to discontinue the service in 1994.

Options to allow Vanderbilt to continue to offer school services included bringing in teachers from other counties for out-of-town students.

"But we felt like the teacher really needed to be a member of our team and accessible to the families. We felt it was important that they were here frequently, not just whenever they could make the drive from their respective County."

That's when Vanderbilt hired Montgomery.

"I'm able to help the children with their lessons, but more importantly, I'm able to provide more of a normalizing factor in their hospital stay. When they come into the hospital, they are often behind in the school work. We can help them catch up. It benefits them both academically and as far as their peers are concerned. It helps calm their fears about what's going to happen to them in the future. It also helps calm their classmates' fears."

Since she has been at Vanderbilt, Montgomery has helped three students obtain high school degrees. If they had not received the services at Vanderbilt, not only would they have graduated after their peers, they might not have graduated at all, Cross said.

Montgomery said she assisted more than 30 children with their class work last year.

"I work with a core group of students across a year, but I'm called upon quite often to just get school and homebound servicesstarted for students who may be leaving the hospital. I am also called upon to educate parents about their child's educational rights."

Another feature that the Vanderbilt school program is able to offer is Visit Video, a computer video program that allows a child in the hospital to actually participate in class work with their peers in their school's classroom. Through a video link-up, the child's classmates can actually see the child going to school in the hospital, and vice versa.

"We can actually communicate across the screen through a chalkboard. The child can write answers in on the chalkboard on the computer screen, and the teacher can see how he or she is doing."

Montgomery said the children feel more of a part of their school's class through the video hook-up. Support was received from computer experts and area teachers, especially from those at Franklin Road Academy in Nashville.