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In Rockcastle, school goes to the kids

MOUNT VERNON — In some ways, Kari Taylor is a typical high school junior.

She's a fan of The Vampire Diaries series of novels and TV show, she's looking forward to prom, and she will take the ACT in March.

But though she's enrolled as a student at Rockcastle County High School, she attends classes at Rockcastle Hospital and Respiratory Care Center, where she has lived for the past three years.

Kari is one of about eight children going to school at the hospital, which has a 93-bed unit for people who depend on ventilators to breathe for them.

There are students from sixth through twelfth grades, although in the past there have also been preschoolers and elementary students.

On a recent Monday morning, Kari, 17, was creating a chart about the U.S. territories on a laptop positioned on a tray attached to her hot pink wheelchair.

Across the room, 16-year-old Shalenia Vanorsdale, who goes by "Sha," was working on a world civilization lesson on a desktop computer, looking up facts about the Reformation period.

Sha, who has restrictive lung disease and scoliosis, said she had been at the hospital for "two years and five months," but she has gradually been "weaned" from needing the ventilator so much and was hoping to return to her home in North Carolina this month.

"I'm glad they put me in school," she said. "I thought I would never be able to go to school until I got home. I would be totally behind."

Renee Bullock, known to her pupils as "Miss Renee," said the classroom represents a unique partnership between the hospital and the public school system.

Bullock is a teacher employed by the Rockcastle County Schools who works full-time at the hospital along with two full-time instructional assistants, Sherry Hensley and Elaine Cummins.

Bullock said that in the past several years, technological advances have made learning much easier for the students, who have varying levels of physical disability.

Johnneka Lackey, an eighth grader who has quadriplegia as the result of a 2003 car accident, manipulates a computer control called a Jouse with her tongue, writing her name and working math problems on the classroom's Smart Board, which combines a large, touch-sensitive white board with a projector and computer.

The class received the Smart Board, which can cost several thousand dollars, through a grant this year, Bullock said.

"In this environment, so many things have to be done for them," she said. "Kids need to be able to ... work with the data."

The curriculum is Web-based, which means that rather than using textbooks, the students read their lessons on a screen and type their answers into the computer.

That has meant a lot to the students, many of whom would be unable to turn the pages in a book or write their answers on a sheet of paper because of limited mobility.

"We don't have to have scribes and readers," Bullock said. "They can access the content on their own."

She grew misty-eyed as she described "the feeling of power" that gives students who must have almost everything done for them — children for whom even breathing is impossible without a machine.

"We encourage independence and look for ways that the kids can control their own destiny, if you will," she said.

Kari has limited mobility and operates a mouse with her left hand.

She showed off a PowerPoint presentation — complete with sound effects and historic photographs — that she created about Ellis Island last year.

"I like using the laptop," she said in a high-pitched whisper, because she doesn't like having to ask her teachers for help.

Kari is an avid reader, but vision problems sometimes make that difficult. Using a text-reading program she can highlight a section of text and have it read aloud by the computer.

Computers are important to the students outside the classroom, too. Several of them are active on Facebook and YouTube, Hensley said.

But there's also homework to be done, and because the curriculum is online they can access their work when school isn't in session.

"These kids develop tremendous computer skills," Bullock said.

Johnneka "extends every lesson," Bullock said, doing outside research and drawing connections between topics. Using the Jouse, she demonstrated a game in which she clicked on a map of the United States, speedily matching states with their capitals.

"She does tremendous work," Bullock said.

Some students, like Johnneka, are working at grade level; others have learning disabilities in addition to the physical problems that result in their ventilator dependence.

For students with very severe delays, the teachers provide stimulation by reading to them and offering other activities.

"Every student has a different set of needs, and they have different abilities," Bullock said. "We modify everything."

Like all public school students, those who are able are required to take government-mandated tests.

They attend major events at the local school, such as prom, assemblies and graduation.

The students attend classes for three hours a day, either a morning or afternoon session.

"They have weakened stamina and they tire very easily," Bullock said.

All are medically fragile, Bullock said. Even a urinary tract infection can cause them to miss a week or more of school.

On this particular day, Bullock brought in her new Kindle, the wireless device whereby users download and read books electronically.

After the other students had gone back up to their rooms, Kari stayed after for a few minutes to check it out.

She broke into a wide grin when Bullock turned on the audio setting that causes the text to be read aloud.

"Can you search authors?" she asked.

Bullock nodded. "Get a Kindle for Christmas," she said emphatically.

"My parents are poor," Kari whispered.

"Hit your peeps upstairs," Bullock said, referring to the hospital workers who become like family to the residents. "It's not that much. It's not like a laptop."

"You can do anything or go anywhere in a book," Hensley had told her just moments before.

"And your learning is not limited to the classroom," Bullock added. "It's lifelong."