Submitted by Katie Tilton
The vast majority of students attend school with ease. They may struggle with math or skin their knee on the playground, but school is a very normal, everyday routine for them.
For some students, however, this is not the case. When chronic illness is a part a student’s life, they can’t attend school the same way their peers do. The medical conditions they face – such as HIV, cystic fibrosis and hemophilia – require additional monitoring and support, and may keep these kids out of traditional classrooms. As if not attending school with your peers weren’t challenge enough, numerous doctor appointments, complicated treatments and even much needed rest can make it difficult for these students to focus on learning basic skills such as reading, writing and math.
These students still deserve the opportunity to have an excellent education that prepares them for college and career and allows them to pursue their dreams. But to make education work for them, schools need to get creative.
I teach in a school dedicated to serving chronically ill students in grades K-8. Working with teachers, parents and medical professionals, the school makes it possible for students to get a high-quality education. We have nurses on staff who help coordinate daily medical services and can quickly address any emergency needs that arise. We also invest heavily in technology.
These days, we are hearing more and more criticism and concerns about the role of technology in schools. Parents and teachers are concerned about screen time. Advocates worry about data privacy and security. But for students with unique needs, technology can be a powerful asset for educators, and help students access a great education in the face of otherwise daunting medical challenges.
In our third grade math class we use a flipped classroom model, made possible through a combination of online and digital learning tools. Students watch lessons at home and then spend time in the classroom working on their homework. This allows our teachers to use more limited classroom time to help students work through problems rather than requiring students to figure out solutions without the help they may need.
Sometimes our students require extended hospital stays. For these students, we provide tablets or laptops and access to helpful software so that they can stay on top of their coursework and return to the classroom without falling behind. We also use Skype to help our students stay connected with their teachers so they don’t miss a beat.
Many of our students come to us behind in school as a result of prior absences and challenges. Our goal is to get them stable medically, and then start working on their academics through a variety of interventions. To help us do that, we use an online assessment program that tracks their progress. This allows teachers to know exactly how each student is doing and to tailor our lesson plans to meet them right where they are.
One of our students, Catarina, came to us in seventh grade and was placed in the lowest-ability class in her grade. Due to the individualized instruction we were able to provide, Catarina quickly caught up to her peers and left us in the highest-ability eighth grade class. She went on to one of Denver’s leading charter schools and is now pursuing a career in biochemistry.
Technology is not the only tool we use to help our students, but it is making it easier for us to serve a population of students, like Catarina, that face very real challenges. Many of the strategies and tools that we use can be powerful for mainstream students, as well, and schools that want to tailor learning to the unique needs of students. The smart use of online programs, tablets, laptops, and multimedia are giving our students a chance to follow their dreams despite their circumstances.
Katie Tilton is an education media specialist at Morgridge Academy at National Jewish Hospital, a school dedicated to serving chronically ill students in grades K-8. She is also a contributor to the Smarter Schools Project, a national forum on the use of technology in schools.
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