Addison Marshall, 22, is on the fast track to success. He’s a student at Texas A&M University carrying a full course load while studying to become a physician assistant. He works at a physical therapy clinic in College Station and teaches a 6 a.m. fitness and conditioning class at a local gym.
“The school program at MD Anderson gave us the security and hope to look beyond Addison’s diagnosis. He actually was ahead of his class when he went back to school and he had great confidence to return.”
But several years ago, Marshall had to do something out of character — slow down.
“I was diagnosed with leukemia at age 15 and relapsed a year later,” he says.
At a time when most high school students are preparing for college placement tests, visiting universities and exploring scholarships, Marshall was in MD Anderson Children’s Hospital, undergoing chemotherapy and proton therapy.
“I was determined to keep up with schoolwork, graduate and go to college,” he says.
And MD Anderson made sure he could do just that.
With the help of a one-room schoolhouse tucked in the corner of the children’s hospital, Marshall didn’t miss a beat academically.
No shortage of resources
Far from an old-fashioned classroom, the school is outfitted with state-of-the-art technology, including wall-mounted flat screens for distance learning, personal tablets loaded with lessons and e-books, and two robots that allow patients to be present in their home classrooms. Still, there are more traditional touches, like colorful drawings, a white board, posters promoting field trips and cozy study areas.
Staffed by five certified educators (two classroom teachers, two school liaisons and a full-time art teacher), the MD Anderson Hospital School is accredited by AdvancED, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that accredits primary and secondary schools throughout the country. Students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade are offered learning in the classroom, by the bedside, or, for those recuperating at home, through online lessons.
In addition, school re-entry support, art classes and extracurricular activities that teach cooking, theater arts and music are provided.
Conversational English is taught to a growing population of international patients and families to help them better navigate MD Anderson and connect with others going through similar experiences.
Teachers also assist siblings of pediatric patients and children of adult patients who may need help with their homework while their mom or dad is hospitalized.
Helping patients maintain normalcy
Started in 2009 and funded solely by philanthropy, the Hospital School is a part of MD Anderson’s Pediatric Education and Creative Arts Program.
Working closely with the home school
Bonnie Butler, who teaches English as a Second Language, says teachers at the Hospital School are creative and use a variety of tools and methods to return students to their home schools and keep them up-to-date with their grade levels.
“Ideally, we’d like to send them home even better prepared,” she says. “Just like any teacher, we push, motivate and encourage so they do their best. No one gets a pass because of their diagnosis, but we certainly accommodate it."
Wykesha Hayes is one of the two masters-degreed educators handling the school re-entry program that helps children smoothly return to their school district classrooms.
She and another school liaison communicate with the patient’s home district, identifying ways to collaborate, whether through distance learning or through homework going back and forth. When it’s time for a patient to return to his or her home classroom, the re-entry specialists meet with teachers and the class to ease the transition for the patient, who may have been away for a long time.
“It’s a teachable moment to share a lesson about cancer and how to be a good friend,” Hayes says. “And it’s an opportunity for the class to hear why their classmate may not have hair or be able to participate in physical education class."
It’s also a chance to help pre-empt possible bullying at a time when it’s difficult enough for a child to return to school.
“Our re-entry specialists are a cross between a social worker and an education counselor,” says Hayes, who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in education at Texas A&M University. “The home districts appreciate MD Anderson coming out to speak to the class, and we do so as former classroom teachers. We can straddle both worlds to make that transition the best it can possibly be."
“Each of us who works in the Children’s Cancer Hospital Pediatric Education and Creative Arts Program wants to impact every patient and family, but it’s often the other way around. We learn so much from them during this difficult time.”
Taking advantage of technology
Hayes is always looking for technologies that expand learning and keep students connected, such as a Skype session with a patient’s home class.
Last fall, the Hospital School acquired Travis and Taylor, two camera-and-Internet enabled robots that swivel around a child’s school district classroom and stream two-way video between the classroom and hospital. Hospitalized or homebound students control the “remote presence robots” with their computer or tablet. They get to interact with their classmates and stay on task, academically.
Hayes and the Hospital School staff continue to explore the best use of the robots for education, but Travis and Taylor already have been used for social activities on the pediatric unit, including remote trick-or-treating.
For Addison Marshall, the answer to keeping up his education in the hospital was not advanced technology, but a human tutor.
When the hospital’s education team asked how they could support Marshall’s education, he asked for help with AP (advanced placement) pre-calculus and physics to keep up with his classmates.
Within two days, the staff found a Rice University student to tutor Marshall two days a week in the hospital, a relationship that lasted six months. When he went back to Foster High School in Richmond, Texas, Marshall was ahead of his class and tutored his classmates. He graduated on time and participated in the school’s graduation ceremony.
“Once you lose the right to go to school by being in the hospital, you understand how valuable it is,” Marshall says. “When you’re thrust into the fire, you have to push through and go to an uncomfortable place to find that tougher spirit. I’ve learned better study habits and gained a new independence because of the tutor I had at MD Anderson and the education program there.”