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Explore the "Children's School" at CHOA

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ATLANTA -

It's a small thing: being able to go to school. But it's a big deal, when you can't go.

That's the reality facing hundreds of sick and injured patients at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's three hospitals. And that's why a colorful little school tucked on the ground floor of the Egleston campus is making such a big difference.

Here, the teachers – all former public school educators like Erin Blonshine – collect their students from their hospital rooms before each lesson.

On the day we visited, Blonshine came to find Mattie, an 8 year old in a robe and fluffy slippers, who is back at Children's again with complications from a 2008 liver transplant.

Blonshine says, "Oh, she's precious, she's so cute. She's soft-spoken, and she's excited about school…"

Olivia – a Paulding county second grader battling a blood cancer – is excited, too. Her teacher, Uroni Macon, says Olivia – who is wearing a hospital mask to her lesson - is bright, and eager, "And she's on top of it. She's reading above grade level,"

Macon has been assigned to teach children with blood cancers, hemophilia, and sickle cell disease. Many have missed a lot of class, struggling with intense pain episodes that can be difficult to control. Often, they feel isolated from their classmates because of their illness. Macon says, "You do get attached. Sometimes, you know, you hate when they come in. Because you know they're here for pain reasons."

But for the next hour, something magical happens. Teacher Erin Blonshine says, "We kind of push the IV poles aside, and we move on, and we go on as we naturally would." Patients leave behind the hospital and become students again. And Children's school program coordinator Ginger Armstrong says, for 60-minutes the kids feel "normal" again, which, Armstrong says, is incredibly important. She explains, "One thing that happens with children, is when they are in medical setting, that they don't have any control over, school is one little thing that they can still feel like they have some control over."

That sense of control is what makes this little school work. Instead of being told what to do, Olivia gets to choose what she wants learn. Today, she's working on telling time, and solving math problems. Macon says that gives kids ownership, which they love. Macon says, "So the next day you go up to get them, and they're ready to go, they're ready they're dressed, and they're ready to learn."

Erin Blonshine knows the uncertainty her transplant students like Mattie are facing. Five years ago, in her early twenties, and facing a relapse of Leukemia, Blonshine underwent a bone marrow transplant at Emory University Hospital. It taught her a lot about life.

Blonshine says, "When you're in the hospital, you have people invading your privacy all the time, and asking questions and you don't get to always control what's happening with your body. But when they do come down here, they can control what's happening with their mind."

And that's the secret of this school. For one hour, anything seems possible. The teachers feel like they are a part of their kids journey toward healing. Blonshine says "It's neat to get to sort of follow along with them. Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes it's emotional. For them and they're parents. But, it's cool to get to be a part of that."

The Children's Healthcare of Atlanta school program works with each student's school – to help kids transition back into their classroom once they leave the hospital.

Ginger Armstrong says many of their former students come back to visit. That's a day all of the teachers at this little school look forward to.

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