BY JON CRONIN
The pre-school program at Bayside’s St. Mary’s Healthcare System for Children is a place of joy, challenges and victories for the children and parents who need the school to help its special-needs students find their voices.
Jean Stein, the director of Early Education at St. Mary’s, was blunt when describing the experience of teaching at the hospital’s school.
“We lose one or two kids a year,” she said, pointing out the students whom the hospital had recently lost in class photos on a billboard outside her office.
“The children who come here are either very sick or physically disabled,” she explained.
The children at St. Mary’s pre-school are placed there by their school district, depending on the child’s need. Each of the students has an Individual Education Plan, receives speech therapy and is in an occupational therapy program. Each classroom has eight children, one teacher and two assistant teachers. The pre-school also has an on-site psychologist, school nurses and social workers who work with the families.
Stein said that she came on board at the pre-school program in 2006, when there were only 32 children in the school. She added that next semester, the school’s population will grow to 68 students. Stein noted that as better medical technologies develop, more physically compromised babies are surviving, and once they hit age 3, they are entitled to educational services from the state.
Stein said that in the classroom, not all of the students are cognitively aware of the other children. There are some students who are highly aware of their surroundings, but cannot physically interact.
“You know, we could be located anywhere, but it is a comfort to the parents that we are in a hospital with doctors on call 24/7,” she said.
She noted that over the past 11 years, she has only had to call about a medical emergency four or five times. The last time this happened, she said, it involved a feisty 3-year-old.
“Which is fine, she’s 3, they should be acting out,” she said, referring to the youngster who pulled out her own tracheostomy tube.
“Some of the students have life-limiting conditions,” Stein said, “I tell parents when they come in, ‘We are not in the business of predicting what happens.”
She added that all the students change in some way during their time at the pre-school. Some of these changes can be measured visually, while some others cannot.
She noted that some of the students are still learning the cognitive skills of an infant—for example, how to finger- feed themselves, recognize themselves in a mirror or recognize their classmates.
Stein said that the school uses augmentative communication styles to help its students with cognitive difficulties and relies on their smiles and recognition through their eyes to tell if it’s getting through to them.
“This is a happy place,” Stein said. “We rejoice in small gains.”
Stein always tells parents that it is good for children to come home with paint on their fingers and in their cuticles.
“It means they did something today,” she said. “Be worried if they didn’t.”
Parents of the hospital’s young patients are thrilled to have their children safe and stimulated for six hours per day, Stein said. For some—such as parents who have to work and cannot care for their child during the day—this is necessary.
Those students who need 24-hour care have nurses—provided by St. Mary’s and paid for by Medicare—watch over them at home during
after-school hours from 6 p.m. to midnight, giving parents the opportunity to work or pick up their other children from school.
For parents, the school normalizes their experience as parents and the childhood of their children.
“It helps the constellation of the family,” said Stein.
In addition to the regular school year, St. Mary’s also offers six-week summer programs for the students.
The city’s Department of Education also provides on-site teachers at the hospital for older students who live at St. Mary’s from elementary to high school age. Those students receive tutelage during their hospital residence.
There is also an adult care center at the hospital, where high school students and adults can receive speech, physical and occupational therapy. That center has an after-school program for students, ages 5 to 18, from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Monday through Friday, and another day-care program for adults, ages 18 to 30, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.