A month after his third kidney transplant, Dominik Lawson began his school day with a hospital checkup.
Less than an hour later, the 13-year-old from Taconite, Minn., headed to class, just a few steps away from where he’s staying in Minneapolis.
“It’s cool because I can just walk down the stairs,” the seventh-grader from the Iron Range said of the Ronald McDonald House, where he’s lived for the past eight months. “I’d be a lot behind in school [without the program].”
Ronald McDonald House Charities, Upper Midwest, opened the alternative school in Minneapolis to give patients and their siblings a way to keep up with school work while away from home for sometimes lengthy medical treatment.
Now in its 20th year, the school tucked into a Mississippi River neighborhood near the University of Minnesota campus is the first of its kind in the U.S. and is Minnesota’s only one-room K-12 school. Its students travel from places as near as St. Cloud and as far as Saudi Arabia to be treated at Twin Cities hospitals for life-threatening illnesses.
Patients and siblings from ages 5 to 18 enroll in classes while living at the house, which provides free private rooms and meals for up to 48 families who live 40 miles or more from the metro area. On average, families stay four months.
“It’s absolutely remarkable that Ronald McDonald House is able to offer this school within the house,” said Chris Lemme, executive leader of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and a local Ronald McDonald House board member.
“Part of the journey in health care and the healing process is having your family and loved ones with you … Without the Ronald McDonald House, I don’t know how we would do it.”
There are 364 Ronald McDonald houses worldwide, but the house on Oak Street was the first one to open a school. A Ronald McDonald House in California opened a second K-12 school in 2015.
“It’s like a regular school except a lot of ages,” said Jeremiah Matias, 11, of Perry, Iowa, who’s lived at the house since December as his 19-year-old sister battles cancer.
Minnesota has only one other one-room school — a kindergarten through sixth-grade school on Lake of the Woods by the Canadian border.
Ronald McDonald House Charities, Upper Midwest, operates four facilities in the Twin Cities.
The nonprofit said it costs nearly $300,000 a year to run the school, an after-school program and summer programming — funded largely by corporate supporters and foundation grants.
Supporting each other
The one-room school, accredited by the Minneapolis School District, looks like any other classroom, displaying the cursive alphabet and stacking shelves with books while offering a schedule featuring a steady dose of reading, writing and arithmetic, plus lunch and recess.
But it’s no ordinary school.
A few weeks ago, 13 students from kindergarten to ninth-grade sat together at tables. Colorful pins marked maps of their hometowns across the globe. And as the school day began, their conversation wasn’t about the weather or the Minnesota Twins or math problems, but rather, medical treatment.
“How’s your sister? Are you going to go home?” teacher Cindy Britain asked Jeremiah. “You’ve been here a while.”
Students stay at the school anywhere from two weeks to two years. Most are siblings of a patient who’s hospitalized or on a waiting list for treatment.
While parents are at the hospital all day, Britain said, students hit the books and even have a bit of fun, including taking field trips, such as ice fishing on Prior Lake.
The school has allowed Dominik, the Iron Range seventh-grader, to meet kids from as far away as Dubai, United Arab Emirates. In addition, Dominik befriended a 16-year-old from central Minnesota who also had a kidney transplant. The school keeps students on track academically, so they aren’t behind classmates when they go home, Britain said.
“Our goal is to make sure these kids feel special,” she said. “The parents are so overwhelmed with what’s going on. The siblings are usually the last on the list.”
Starting a new school
As the leader of a one-room school, Britain juggles the role of counselor, teacher and principal.
“ ‘Is it a real school?’ people say. Yes, it’s a real school,” said Britain, who teaches subjects from high school chemistry to elementary reading.
A former Blake School teacher, Britain helped start the Ronald McDonald school in 1998. “There was nothing to copy,” she said.
With the help of volunteers and two assistant teachers, Britain creates a study plan for each student, all of whom get one-on-one attention.
Other lessons, such as writing a biography of a famous person, involve the entire class.
Britain oversees heartbreaking conversations, such as when one of the house’s patients dies.
But she also has heartwarming stories of kids of all ages, cultures and hometowns cheering each other on during trying times.
“It’s so rewarding to watch the kids from different areas and cultures become friends and celebrate each other’s victories,” she said. “They become a family. Some of the best therapy happens in that room. It’s absolutely amazing.”