When her class sits down to eat lunch, 14-year-old Jennifer sits with them, but instead of eating her food she pours it into a tube to her stomach.
Since birth, Jennifer has been unable to eat normally because she was born with a brain dysfunction that prevents her from swallowing food.
At a regular school, Jennifer's actions might draw attention, but during lunch at the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital School in Downey, no one seems to notice. It is a school for physically handicapped students, ages 3 to 21.
The school, in the pediatric ward of the county-operated medical center, has been part of the Downey Unified School District since 1962. It was started as a county project in the mid-1930s for youngsters who needed care at the hospital.
Last year, the hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary. It is internationally known for its work in rehabilitating people with disabilities ranging from severe spinal injuries to nerve and brain damage.
Under a contract with the county Board of Supervisors, the county provides the building, utilities and maintenance, and the Downey school district is responsible for instructional material and staff, said Shirley Zanger, principal of the school. Enrollment usually averages 45 to 55 children. Most of the students live in the hospital and are undergoing rehabilitation because of illness or injury, and the rest are bused in.
If a child's physical condition prevents him from attending class, a bedside teacher is provided. When his medical condition is stabilized, he is sent to the pediatric ward of the hospital for rehabilitation, Zanger said. As soon as he can sit in a chair for three or four hours, he is sent to school.
School hours are 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., during which time in-patients go to occupational, physical and speech therapy at the hospital. They also may have medical, dental and vision appointments, or may be scheduled to meet with a psychologist.
Therapists follow a strict schedule in picking up students and dropping them off throughout the day, but teachers are flexible. They often have to be able to pick up where they left off with a student, Zanger said, making their time with the patient very individualized.
"Our primary goal is to get students rehabilitated and medically stable," said Caleb Wong, the teacher in the head and trauma class, which focuses on stabilizing memory. "Teachers and therapists work together as a team and share information. We come up with plans that best help the students overcome physical, emotional and behavioral problems."
If you took away the wheelchairs, respirators, helmets and other medical equipment, the four rooms would look like any other schoolroom. On the wall in the preschool classroom are numbers, alphabets and artwork. The elementary, high school, and head and trauma classrooms are filled with audiovisual equipment and computers.
Except for the head and trauma class, the other classes follow a regular school's curricula, including reading, math and language arts. High school students receive instruction in career education to assist them in finding a job after graduation.
When the pediatric building was built, the doctors felt the school was an important part of the rehabilitation process and decided to rebuild it in a wing of the pediatric ward, Zanger said.
"It is primarily for hospital patients because some of them stay a long time, years even," Zanger said. Other physically handicapped students, who live at home and need special equipment to attend school, are transported on specially equipped buses.
Gary, 15, comes from Monterey Park each day. The former straight-A student is in the head-trauma class.
Gary suffered brain damage in an automobile accident about a year ago and has forgotten everything, Wong said. He was also unable to speak. But Wong is feeding sentences written on strips of paper into a computer that reads the sentences aloud and enables Gary to learn them.
Wong considers music to be therapeutic, and said he uses it every morning to get students going.
"Gary is like Mel Tillis (a country singer), he stutters so terribly, but he can sing a song. He couldn't say a sentence, but he could sing half a song."
Wong said he works with students at their ability level. "I try to give them a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction of being able to do something, because after an accident, a lot of them feel very depressed, very worthless, because they're not able to do what they used to do. Some couldn't even write their names, couldn't even say their names, and that's very demoralizing."
When Gary first came to the school, he had a low self-image, Wong said. Gary's sentences were incoherent. But now he is coming out of his shell and learning to enjoy life again, Wong said. He beamed as he told the story of how Gary would laugh each time he won at shuffleboard.