It’s a school like no other — beautiful, with wide halls, abundant windows, and bright, appealing classrooms with cutting-edge technology. The second floor boasts an intriguing barrel-shaped ceiling and ramps and elevators allow for easy movement.
It is, indeed, a school like no other, in more ways than these. The Mount Pleasant Blythedale Union Free School District (U.F.S.D.), located at Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, educates children ages 5-21 who require long-term rehabilitation that cannot be met by another facility. It is a fully accredited school district, subject to all the rules and regulations of the New York State Education Department. “Part of being a child is going to school and learning how to move about in a school,” says Dr. Corinne Bloomer, Blythedale’s superintendent. “Our students receive both an academic education and the practical knowledge required for living with a disability.”
The school was established in 1971 and moved into its current location after ongoing expansion in 1998. During the 12 years Dr. Bloomer has been at Blythedale, the student population has grown from 85 to as many as 155 students. The new school building was conceived with its student/patient population in mind — hospital and school are attached so students and staff can move easily between them. The unusual design of the second-floor ceiling provides interest for children who may be on their backs all day. Depending on their conditions, some students attend classes on hospital gurneys, in wheelchairs or on crutches, their movement facilitated by the ramps and elevators.
The school day at Blythedale is much the same as for other schoolchildren. Some arrive by bus; others come from the hospital. The difference is that students’ first stop is with nursing staff, to receive medication or check IVs. Students attend speech, occupational, and physical therapy throughout the day, as do disabled children in normal school districts.
Patients start schoolwork, along with therapy, as soon as they are placed at Blythedale. Initially, teachers may have to go to a student’s hospital room, but eventually the kids come to school. Patients’ situations vary widely. Some are cognitively intact but physically limited, while others are developmentally impaired; some face both physical and developmental challenges. There are classes that are more academic than others, with adjustments made for the special circumstances. For instance, capable students take Regents exams, but instead of taking exams in June, they may take them in August. They may be intellectually prepared, but lack the physical stamina for lengthy testing. The State Education Department allows tests to be administered over two days, instead of the prescribed half-day.
The regular school year runs from September to June with classes lasting 45 minutes. During the six-week summer session, classes are 90 minutes long to allow for greater subject concentration. The summer session enables children to catch up to where they would be if their schooling hadn’t been interrupted by illness or injury, and provides extra time for those who need it to complete their courses while allowing children to continue therapy.
Eventually, some patients are able to return to their own schools or other special education programs in the public schools, while continuing therapy on a less intense level. Students graduate with Regents diplomas or diplomas from their local school districts. Some go to college; others are so disabled that they move to other facilities that help them function as adults.
Blythedale has 30 teachers, all certified in special education or subject content area as required by the state, and 30 teaching assistants. The teaching staff receives special training to help children with their medical equipment. For example, they know how to manage wheelchairs, remove splints, care for children with tracheotomies, and administer artificial respiration. Dr. Bloomer has high praise for the teachers, who, she notes, must be flexible, as new students arrive in their classrooms frequently.
Because of its unusual environment, Blythedale is frequently used as a testing ground for new software and adaptive devices to help children communicate. In this way, the school can offer its students the latest technological advances on a normal school budget.
According to Dr. Bloomer, one of the special joys of this facility is that accomplishments have greater meaning. “The people who work here see the child within, not the broken bodies,” she says. As a result, the children learn to see themselves in that same light.