TAMPA — On Friday morning, Sharon Stevens, 13, worked on her writing with her language arts teacher Rebecca Robinson.
The pair was bent over a workbook, editing Sharon’s grammar.
“You’re getting better and better at editing,” Robinson said, pleased with her pupil.
Sitting not at a desk but the table in the Stevens family dining room, Robinson worked with Sharon for the next hour. The girl’s parents meandered in and out of the room.
Sharon is one of 90 Hillsborough County students enrolled in the school district’s Hospital/Homebound Program, serving children who cannot attend regular school because of health issues.
In the 2012-13 school year, Florida public schools served more than 2,000 students in the hospital or home.
Before this school year is over, Hillsborough County Public Schools will serve 400 to 500 hospitalized or homebound students, coordinator Jim Pirotta said. The local program has 23 full-time teachers.
Pirotta said many students using the program are undergoing dialysis or cancer treatments, or have conditions such as sickle cell anemia, traumatic brain injuries or broken limbs.
For some students, the program offers a temporary way to keep up with school work while recovering from illness or injury. For others, like Sharon, it is the only education they have ever known.
Sharon cannot attend traditional school because she was born with a rare condition — megacystis microcolon intestinal hypoperistalsis syndrome — that weakens her immune system and limits control of her bodily functions. She also has high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum.
Without the program, Sharon’s parents Lyudmila and Wayne Stevens say they don’t know if she would attend classes.
“It is the only means of education she has,” Lyudmila Stevens said. “I extremely appreciate that the program exists.”
Sharon began kindergarten as a homebound student. Elementary-schoolers in the program receive hospital or home visits from a teacher three times a week.
When Sharon started in the program, she spoke only Russian. Her mother is Russian and her Russian grandmother lives with the family.
In the first year, Sharon’s hospital/homebound teacher taught her English. Today, she is fluent and switches effortlessly from one language to the other.
Once she reached middle school, Sharon began taking teleclasses, held via conference call with the teacher on one end and several students on the other. These classes offer the students a way to communicate not only with their teachers but also with each other.
“She is able to have certain relationships with the kids,” Lyudmila Stevens said.
Sharon said she likes getting to interact with other kids in her teleclasses.
“It’s a good social role model for me,” she said. “More people out there should know about it.”
This year, Sharon is taking math, science, language arts and physical education. PE is a little different than in a traditional school.
“Since we’re on the phone, we just get to talk about it,” Sharon said. “This nine weeks in seventh grade, it’s pretty much discussing about soccer.”
Something Sharon does not experience much in the Hospital/Homebound Program is peer pressure, so she feels she can truly be herself. To unwind, she listens more to music from the 1950s and 1960s than Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift.
In addition to her classes, Sharon gets two visits a week from Robinson, who also serves as her case manager. Robinson works with Sharon on areas of difficulty. Right now, Sharon says those things are “writing, editing and slowing my roll.”
Because of the up-close-and-personal relationship she has with her teachers, Sharon has formed strong bonds with every one of them.
“They’re really part of the family,” Wayne Stevens said.
One year, teacher Jennifer Billor traveled to Miami to visit Sharon while she was recovering from surgery.
Billor, who taught Sharon for four years when she was in elementary school, left the classroom to become a hospital/homebound teacher 13 years ago. She currently works one-on-one with seven students.
“I often tell people when they ask what I do and they’re like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there was something like that,’” she said.
Billor, who makes about $43,000 a year, said this type of teaching job is not for everyone. It is difficult to see the struggles the families are going through. Since she started, two of her students have died. Still, she can’t see herself working in any other profession.
“We can really see the growth and how far they’ve come and the joy in the parents’ eyes,” she said. “They’ve had to endure so much that to see their child learning means everything to them.”
This year is Robinson’s third year with Sharon. The former Plant High School English teacher works one-on-one with three other students each week.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Robinson said. “We become so close with students and their families. When you’re teaching 120 students in a school, teachers try to become close, but it’s difficult.”
When she joined the program eight years ago, Robinson had to earn two new certifications because so many types of students participate in hospital/homebound. In addition to high-school English, she is now certified to teach elementary and exceptional student education. She is paid a $46,000 salary.
While she loves her job, Robinson said there are downsides.
“We do have students who pass away and have really serious medical issues,” she said. “I have never seen Sharon physically suffer. She’s been pretty healthy. But I have had other students who have. That’s very difficult. You get very attached.”
Lyudmila Stevens says her daughter has a scientific mind and wants to work in the medical field when she grows up. Since so many jobs today can be done on a computer from home, she said she hopes Sharon will one day be able to have a career.
Many of Hillsborough’s hospital/homebound students are in the program temporarily.
Shirley Hanks’ 9-year-old grandson James, who was born with only half of a heart, began his education in the program but now attends regular school. Due to complications after his second heart surgery, James’ immune system was weak.
“He couldn’t be around other people because we were afraid he would get sick,” Hanks said. “When it was time for him to start school, he couldn’t.”
James stayed in the program until he was in the third grade. Because his health had improved, he began spending half of the school day at Seffner Elementary School.
“The transition has gone beautifully,” Hanks said. “I really think it is because of the start the Hospital/Homebound Program gave him.”
Now a fourth-grader, James — who has autism — spends the entire school day at Seffner in the school’s exceptional student education program, where he enjoys being in a class with other kids.
“He loves learning,” Hanks said. “He’s doing terrific.”
The hospital/homebound faculty and staff try to offer students opportunities to give them at least a taste of what traditional school is like, Pirotta said. Last school year, staff organized a “Hospital/Homebound’s Got Talent” night. Students proudly showcased their artwork, videos and other talents.
And on Oct. 10, an oncology professor from the University of South Florida will help the students conduct science experiments.
“We’re trying to do some of those things this year to give them that taste of school,” Pirotta said. “These teachers work so hard. They’re pretty awesome.”