Classroom opening inside hospital cancer unit for kids

<b>CORRECTION -- 6/21/08</b><br>A story in Friday's Review-Journal about the Torino Classroom at Sunrise Children's Hospital misidentified Brandon Rayner's physician. He is Dr. Jonathan Bernstein, a pediatric hematology oncologist.

Mixed martial arts and math are Brandon Rayner's two favorite endeavors.

Since his diagnosis with leukemia, the 10-year-old has been forced to shelve his fighting skills until his body and immune system are strong enough for competition.

Fortunately, Brandon's bouts with fifth-grade math will continue.

Through partnerships with the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation, the Torino Foundation and Sunrise Children's Hospital, the Clark County School District will bring somewhat of a normal classroom setting to hospitalized children.

School officials and representatives from both foundations on Thursday announced the opening of the Torino Classroom inside Sunrise Children's Hospital oncology unit.

The 340-square-foot classroom has a full-time instructor, computers, a dry-erase board, school supplies and other educational materials. Officials said it's a way "to fill the voids that exist in our community in serving children with critical illnesses.''

It is a perfect fit for patients such as Brandon who must spend long periods of time away from the traditional classroom setting but who needs to stay on track, school officials said.

"Their ongoing education during the struggle and challenges they face daily is now addressed in a very loving and comforting way,'' said Jeff Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation.

The Torino Foundation is providing the funding for the classroom.

In Nevada, children diagnosed with diseases that require hospitalization often are tutored at home just five hours per week as opposed to the traditional 33 hours of weekly classroom instruction.

Even though home tutoring provides a way for these children to receive their education, they often fall behind because of missed class time and lack of social opportunities with other students.

Roughly 50 percent of those students are held back a grade because of missed class time, school officials said. That results in low morale and self-esteem, Gordon said.

Children in higher grades also miss out on opportunities to pursue honors or advanced placement courses. Their only option was general education courses.

Through the new program, those students will be able to take college preparatory classes online, providing them an opportunity to reach their educational goals.

The Torino Classroom is open five days a week for K-12 patients. It's the only program of its kind in Nevada and one of only a handful in the nation, said Todd Sklamberg, chief operating officer of Sunrise Children's Hospital.

Walt Rulffes, Clark County School District superintendent, said Torino Classroom students will receive full credit for their work, and grades and advancement will be recorded at each of the students' regular schools.

The district will track student progress through monthly meetings with the Torino instructor and district teachers. Additional meetings will be arranged with teachers and school officials when children return to their regular school schedule.

Tonie Valesano, director of the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation's social services division, will run the Torino Classroom. She said research suggests education is what most impacts a child's quality of life during treatment for acute illness.

When she spent time with children at bedside, Valesano said, all she heard was, "I don't want to miss out on school. ... I don't want to miss graduation.''

"I am thrilled I won't have to hear that again,'' she said.

Dr. Ron Kline, a pediatric hematology-oncologist and Brandon's physician, said he anticipates 30 of his patients will use the classroom each year.

Daily instruction will be taught by Lenny Ware, former director of special education at Western High School in Las Vegas.

Ware, director of educational services for the Nevada Childhood Cancer Foundation, said the curriculum will cover all subjects and be individually based.

The focus will be on students' needs, strengths and weaknesses. Ware also will be available to students for tutoring as needed.

Asked what he thought about the classroom, Brandon replied, "I'm excited."

Contact reporter Annette Wells at or 702-383-0283.