having children line up outside the door and demand more homework from their teachers might not be normal but the Children’s Ark School at University Hospital Limerick is not an ordinary school.
Home to some of the region’s sickest children, the Ark has been providing a comprehensive education service to primary and secondary students since 2006. And that is about to be improved further still with the construction of a new €320,000 school building funded by the Department of Education.
It was consultant paediatrician Dr Liam Carroll, now retired, who was the driving force behind the school, said principal Margaret McCarthy, Crecora, who has been there from day one.
“It was his initial vision to have the school in the hospital because he felt it normalised the day and he would have been very much into the whole holistic treatment of children - and that is an important principle for us as well,” she said.
Frank Keane, directorate manager, maternal and child health, HSE Mid-West, said the “function of a school in this medical environment is both therapeutic and educational” and that had been part of Dr Carroll’s vision.
“Providing educational facilities here and providing a school structure is part of the whole area of normalising a kid’s stay in hospital. That is what it is all about. It is about normalising the environment as much as we possibly can under admittedly abnormal circumstances. Chronic illness in children is not normal but it does happen,” said Mr Keane.
Having a number of classes to teach in a single classroom is not unusual in small rural schools but until now the two teachers at the Children’s Ark School have had to teach primary and secondary students simultaneously, with between two and 10 children in class at any one time.
The new school will have two classrooms and will allow staff to segregate children into more appropriate age groups.
“A big thing for us will be being able to cater for post-primary as well as primary. If a 13-year-old comes in here in the morning and sees a four-year-old sitting there, the initial reaction is this is not for me and likewise for a junior infant who can be intimidated by seeing an older teenager here. So having a primary and a post- primary area will be very important for us,” said teacher Mary Carr, Raheen, who has been with the school since 2008.
In-patients at the Children’s Ark are mostly younger children but conditions like cystic fibrosis mean the school can see students into their late teens. And the school also accepts children who come to the hospital for day procedures such as enzyme replacement or dialysis.
“It is designed in such a way that no child will be at a disadvantage because they have got to come to school here one day a week as part of the management of their illness,” Mr Keane said.
Students with acute illness or broken bones also sit their Junior Cert and Leaving Cert at University Hospital Limerick, all in the presence of an invigilator from the State Exams Commission.
It’s an indication of how stitched into the education system the school at the Children’s Ark is, according to Frank Keane, who has replaced Dr Carroll as the chairman of the board of management.
When asked this Wednesday why there weren’t any children at school, the Leader was told it was summer holiday and why should children in the Ark be any different. The school is subject to inspection and every other department regulation.
“We have a full board of management; we are accountable as a board of management and for the whole funding around the building we are managing,” explained Mr Keane.
“If you think about it, we are trying to build a Department of Education funded school, so we have all the trials and tribulations of their administrative processes and we are trying to build that with their money on a site owned by Department of Health.
“So it has taken a long time to work through all the various angles and things that have to be covered, insurances, collateral warranties and so on.
I’ve heard of stuff in the last four or five months I’ve been involved that I never before heard of. But we just had to work through it and, dare I say it, the endgame here will be a state-of-the-art, IT-fitted facility which will be as good as any school in the country.”
Improved IT facilities will add to an educational experience which includes all the mainstream subjects on the curriculum but also added extras such as music and art therapy, science projects and visits from the likes of the Irish Chamber Orchestra, explained Ms McCarthy.
It might be imagined that children unlucky enough to be in hospital might not be too keen for lessons but that has not been the principal’s experience.
“Believe it or not, they come to the door looking for homework if we don’t give it to them,” she said.
Some of the students may be required to be in hospital even if they don’t themselves feel particularly unwell.
Others who are more acutely ill can be given instruction only if their doctors think they are up to it. If there is an issue with infection control, children are kept out of the class environment but can be taught at their own bedside later in the afternoon.
“We cater to their every individual need and we are very much aware of the fact that they are in hospital; that they don’t known the others in the class very often and they can be feeling a bit sad,” said Ms Carr.
“So we do everything we can to alleviate that and within minutes you can see the tension and anxiety lifting. By day two or three they can be outside the door waiting for us to come in. On the whole it is a very positive experience for them.”
Construction is due to begin shortly, contracts having been signed with Thurles company Clancy Construction and it is hoped that the pupils and teachers will be able to move to their new building - just to the rear of their current classroom - by April of next year.
Both teachers wished to express their gratitude to all the staff in the Children’s Ark Unit - and the wider hospital community - for their support since the school was established.