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Budget Woes Send Hospital Teachers Packing

June 20, 2008

By Steve Giegerich, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Jun. 20–For over three-quarters of a century the program has provided lessons, along with a healthy dose of normalcy, to thousands of students bedridden in the area’s primary children’s hospitals.

Now, the tradition of assigning two St. Louis Public Schools teachers to St. Louis Children’s Hospital and a third teacher to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center could become a victim of the cash-starved district’s mandate to pare $30 million from its $320 million operating budget.

In an effort to salvage a program that began in 1932, officials of both medical centers are scheduled to meet soon with Rick Sullivan, the school system’s chief executive officer.

Central to that discussion is the bottom line of a school district that laid out nearly a quarter of a million dollars in salary and benefits for the three teachers during the last fiscal year.

“The district had to make a call, and today’s economy is forcing a lot of tough calls,” said Cardinal Glennon spokesman Bob Davidson.

In lieu of teachers, the district is proposing an online, “virtual learning” to bring lessons to hospitalized students.

Neither Sullivan nor hospital representatives would speculate on whether the discussions could result in a cost-sharing arrangement between the schools and the medical centers.

“A unilateral decision will be made about the best way to do it,” said Sullivan.

Under terms of the long-standing arrangement, children enrolled in the city schools are the designated beneficiaries of the program.

The responsibility of educating hospitalized children generally falls to the child’s school district. In St. Louis, that responsibility is shouldered by the district’s special education program.

Leeann Zerkel, coordinator of the Cardinal Glennon program, said all of the hospital’s students are St. Louis residents. Davidson said extended stay students from elsewhere normally receive homework assignments directly from their schools.

Emmy McClelland, the director of governmental affairs at Children’s Hospital, said the “vast majority” of Children’s Hospital students benefiting from the service are, indeed, city residents.

But the district administrator overseeing the program, herself a former Children’s Hospital teacher, says that’s not always the case.

Speaking from personal experience, Norma Speckhard, the executive director for special education, says empathetic teachers often allow non-resident children, including students from across the nation and around the world, to attend classes in the hospital-based learning centers.

What was once “a nice, communal thing to do,” said Speckhard, has become an “act of charity” for a school system that can ill afford to spend $240,000 annually on non-classroom teachers.

“It serves a valuable psychological and social service for the children, but it just doesn’t serve the St. Louis Public Schools any longer,” said Speckhard, who last month informed Children’s and Cardinal Glennon that the program would be discontinued.

Speckhard said she put the termination of the program on hold for a year out of deference to the two Children’s Hospital teachers, both of whom are retiring at the end of summer school.

Speckhard says that the shorter hospital stays dictated by insurance companies have lessened the need for the service since she left her post at Children’s Hospital in 1995.

McClelland said that while some aspects of health care have changed, the program continues to provide a critical service for children with chronic and debilitating illnesses.

At Children’s, teachers reach out to kids after they’ve been hospitalized for three days. The teacher assigned to Cardinal Glennon generally contacts the students after two days.

McClelland said the program serves an average of 35 children a month at Children’s, but enrollment can sometimes reach as high as 50.

Zerkel could not say how many Cardinal Glennon patients use the program.

Nationwide, children’s hospitals and school districts have varying arrangements, sometimes shifting the expense away from the school district.

“Every state does it differently,” said Judy Einstein, of the national Association for the Education of Children with Medical Needs.

“Sometimes the cities pay. Sometimes the counties pay. Sometimes the hospital reimburses the districts, and sometimes they don’t.”

Should Sullivan and the hospitals fail to find common ground, McClelland is unconvinced that virtual learning will fill the void left by the departing teachers.

She said, “I don’t want to be critical of virtual schools, but this is a unique population, and I’m not sure it would be the best answer to their situation.”

sgiegerich@post-dispatch.com — 314-340-8172

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