Among the vast, winding hallways inside the UNC Hospital complex, there’s a school. It's small, by public school standards, but it serves a vital purpose.
As Dave DeWitt reports, it offers young patients the chance to remain students, and retain a sense of normalcy during a difficult time in their lives.
Dave DeWitt: The UNC Hospital School is one of the most important and, many say, effective schools in the state. And yet no student would choose to go here. Parents aren’t getting on wait lists. Lotteries aren’t being drawn. Even test scores don’t really matter.
As Principal Flicka Bateman explains, students at her school have bigger problems than homework.
Flicka Bateman: Kids who are in for organ transplants, kids who are here for burns sometimes. Kids who are here for chemotherapy may come in for a week then out for three weeks. We also have chronic illnesses, like cystic fibrosis. And we may see those children from the time they’re five years old until the time they graduate high school.
The school serves about 2,000 or so students a year. And the day they arrive, whether it’s for two days or six months, the dozen or so teachers at the UNC Hospital School get to work. Sometimes it means simply coordinating assignments with the student’s home district. Other times, its spending hours at the child’s bedside.
Grace Richmond is a pre-K through 3rd grade teacher in the psychiatric division of the school. Like most on staff, she’s taught in traditional public schools, but calls this job the best one she’s ever had.
Grace Richmond: It’s always on the go, because when you come in here on a Monday morning, I may have 5 students or I may have two students. So it’s always exciting, it’s always changing.
Teachers who can be flexible thrive at the school, as do those who seek a more intimate setting, like Karen Weatherly, a teacher in the pediatric division.
Karen Weatherly: This position, I get to work with kids individually a lot. And that’s very rewarding, I think, for me personally, and I think it’s very helpful for our kids.
Weatherly has been at the school 13 years. Other than retirement, teachers don’t leave the UNC Hospital School. But that doesn’t mean the job is easy.
Every teacher has heart-wrenching stories of children who die. Principal Bateman remembers a young girl who was diagnosed with cancer at 15. It went into remission for a while, but came back. Soon, it was clear, she wouldn’t make it.
Bateman: Her goal then became, I want to make it to graduation.
But the girl’s cancer progressed faster than the academic calendar. So the hospital school and the girl’s regular school made special arrangements
Bateman: So she did her final paper she needed to do to graduate, was discharged from the hospital, went home, everyone dressed up in caps and gowns. And only she received her diploma. And she died the next morning.
Charlie Harris: I’m afraid of water moccasins.
Charlie Harris is in second grade at Eastern Elementary School in Greenville. But he’s not there today, he’s here, in a classroom on the 7th floor of the children’s hospital at UNC and he’s written a story about why he hates water moccassins.
Charlie Harris: I’m afraid of them because, one, poisonous, two they live in swamps, and three, teeth as big as hawk’s talons.
Charlie likes school, especially math. And he’s not shy about telling you he’s good at it, and that he’s smart.
Charlie Harris: Really smart. My class doesn’t even know how to do multiplication.
DeWitt: So you’re ahead of the class?
Charlie: Way ahead of the class.
This is Charlie’s second day in the hospital, this time. He’s here to get a treatment for his cystic fibrosis. His mom, Ramona, calls Charlie a "world-class chatter-boxer." She says doing school work here provides an important diversion for Charlie.
Ramona Harris: I think the routine helps him, immensely. Because he’s not going stir crazy in here and he’s getting stuff accomplished and he’s not getting behind in school so when he does transition back to school, it’s not going to be a ton of makeup work and he’s not going be feeling like he’s behind on anything. So I think the school is fantastic.
Because of the nature of Charlie’s illness, he can expect many more trips here, right up until he graduates from high school.
Principal Flicka Bateman says it’s about making sure the student keeps up academically, and retains at least some sense of normalcy.
Bateman: We go to bedside, we have books, we have computers, we have Ipads, we talk about the work, we give them tests. All of which says, yes, you’re sick, but there is a future, there’s hope, so let’s get on with your life.