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The Hechinger Report is collaborating with The New York Times to produce Bulletin Board, page 2 of the Timess education supplement, Learning.

Megan Nickels, PedsAcademy founder, helps Ella Greene build a robotic version of her dog. PedsAcademy offers kids rare opportunities for engaging, high-tech learning while they’re at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. Credit: Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Learning through hospital stays

Ella Greene never liked math. Then the 9-year-old got bone cancer and needed to stay at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. Last November, toward the end of Ella’s year of treatment, PedsAcademy opened at the hospital, bringing virtual reality field trips, robots and math lessons that didn’t feel like school.

“I used to struggle with multiplying and stuff, but now I’m really good at it,” Ella said. “And it’s fun to do.”

PedsAcademy tailors instruction to students’ specific needs, both medical and academic. Children with bone cancers, like Ella, tend to have muscle weakness and fatigue, for example. PedsAcademy teachers — faculty and students from the University of Central Florida — designed lessons to keep her active.

When Ella took a virtual field trip to swim with sea turtles, the breaststroke she did from her hospital bed worked her muscles. And what seemed like a fun underwater jaunt was actually a math lesson in disguise, devised to help Ella work on a subject she had trouble with. Knowing the dimensions of a piece of a sunken ship, Ella was asked to estimate the size of other things underwater.

PedsAcademy also includes lessons in science, literacy, engineering and the humanities. Children don’t get credits from the program, but the lessons offer an enrichment opportunity to keep them engaged in their learning at a time when it’s easy to do the opposite.

IN DEPTH: Read more about the PedsAcademy program

Aleshia Greene, Ella’s mother, worried about her daughter’s education when she learned that she had cancer. Besides her concern that Ella would fall behind, Greene said there were many hours to fill during long days in the hospital. Through the program, Ella got to fill them with virtual trips to Egypt, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. And she’s in the process of building a robotic version of her dog, River.

“You really don’t feel like you’re doing school,” Ella said. “You’re actually doing the most fun thing you’ve ever done.”

PedsAcademy is believed to be the first program of its kind, but since most children’s hospitals are affiliated with universities, and since many universities have schools of education, the ingredients for replicating the model are there.

A children’s hospital isn’t a place where families expect to find outstanding learning opportunities. But PedsAcademy adds personalized learning to the personalized medicine at Nemours.

For Ella, that means the prospect of re-enrolling in her home school after a year of cancer treatments with a newfound passion — and aptitude — for math.



Creating adult networks for students

The mission of most schools is to expand what students know. But maybe they should care about the people students know, too. That’s the core argument of a new book by Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education at the innovation-focused Christensen Institute. And technology, Freeland Fisher writes in “Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students’ Networks,” can be a powerful tool in that effort.

Networks matter. Children from wealthy, highly educated families inherit connections that help them get into college, find good jobs and become successful adults. Schools can use technology to help level the playing field by expanding all students’ networks.

Exposure is enough. A variety of technologies can connect students virtually with industry experts or mentors, and even if the connections don’t result in enduring relationships, the exposure can still introduce them to career paths and life advice they wouldn’t have accessed otherwise.

Rethinking school offers results. While it’s significantly more work, schools that redesign their curriculum and instructional model to use technology to prioritize relationship-building can have a major impact on students.

The Christensen Institute tracks a growing list of technologies that help connect students to people outside their classrooms, at And Freeland Fisher has now begun to study higher education, searching for the tech tools that expand the networks of older students. The value of this work can seem clearer for people so close to the job market. But Freeland Fisher makes the case that our economy and global competitiveness depend on early thinking about student networks.



John Matthew Diaz Credit: Cora Kobischka

Internationals Network removes a language barrier

John Matthew Diaz was 13 when he left the Philippines to join his mother in New York City, where she worked. Three days later he was sitting at a middle school desk, staring at an end-of-semester exam. It was in English, of course — not his native Tagalog — and he found it bewildering.

The next fall, he landed at the International High School for Health Sciences in Elmhurst, Queens — one of 15 New York City public high schools in the Internationals Network, which enroll only recently arrived refugees and immigrants who are not fluent in English.

Today, Diaz, 20, is a sophomore at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

“I was in class, listening to the professor explain how to write a research paper,” he said. “I thought, this is exactly what my teachers said I would see in college — here it is, and I already know how to do it.”

About 70 percent of these newcomers, nearly all from low-income families, enroll in college after graduating from an Internationals high school, which matches the nationwide average for all students. Their success comes in part from the network’s model, which doesn’t require students to be fluent in English before they take difficult classes in math, science or history. The schools also have college counselors on staff.

Last year, Diaz won second place for the best freshman inquiry-based paper at John Jay. “To win something like that,” he said, “it’s mind-blowing to me.”



Nycholas Lovejoy, participant in the summer 2018 Gathering of the Tribes at UC-Riverside, California. Credit: Courtesy of Native American Student Programs

A boost for Native American students

LeeAna Espinoza Salas said she was a “super-timid, super-shy, super-reserved” high school freshman when she arrived on the campus of the University of California, Riverside, for a summer program to introduce young people like her to college.

There was something else about Salas that required additional encouragement: She’s Native American, part of the Cahuilla tribe of Southern California.

Native Americans are almost invisible at nontribal colleges, making up only 1 percent of students. Just one in five who finish high school go on to higher education, the Education Department says, compared with 70 percent of other high school graduates. Among those who do go, barely 40 percent earn degrees within six years.

To bolster students’ self-confidence, the Gathering of the Tribes at Riverside accepts 30 to 50 Native American high schoolers, mostly from California, for eight days each summer and has them live in dorms, take classes and learn time management and how to write admission essays — interspersed with talking circles, drumming and other cultural elements.

“You just see them blossom,” said Josh Gonzales, the director. “They get the ability to speak, to talk about who they are and where they’re coming from.”

Over 14 summers, 93 percent of participants have gone on to some form of higher education, according to the university, which just got $1.28 million from the nearby San Manuel Band of Mission Indians to support the program.

Salas, now a senior at Riverside, plans to get a master’s degree in American Indian studies and help develop similar programs, which she said made students “hold each other accountable, whether academically or on a personal basis. It’s like you’re guaranteed a friend. You have someone you can rely on.”



Handling difficult job situations

The first few months of a new job can be daunting for anyone. Now, imagine that your closest friend is in critical condition after being shot, a customer gets in your face and uses a racial epithet or your couch-hopping luck runs out and you are homeless.

These are the sorts of scenarios that Wendy Prudencio had in mind when she developed a job-readiness curriculum for young people who have experienced gang violence and the criminal justice system.

“There is a sense that if you do all this, if you check all these boxes, you’ll be successful,” Prudencio, associate program director with the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, said of most workforce-preparation programs. “It’s very disheartening for young people, especially vulnerable young people, when they are met with the reality of the world.”

Her program, which is being piloted by three city nonprofits, introduces young adults not only to the particulars of career planning, resume writing and interviewing (though there is plenty of that), but also to how to handle difficult situations on the job. Classes tackle microaggressions, privilege and coping with feedback.

At a recent session in Coney Island, instructor Ruanita Davis-Freeman led a discussion on how to handle a nasty customer. One student recalled a customer’s grabbing him by the jacket; another talked about having asked his boss to intervene with an uncooperative customer.

While Davis-Freeman tailored her thoughts for the young people before her, some advice was universal: “Patience is something in a workplace you must have. A person without patience doesn’t work their way up, they work their way out.”


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