Conner Nestler, 18, has been in and out of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for a decade.

And unlike many of his peers, he can't wait to get to school - even when he's being treated in isolation in his room. His teacher, Gemma Magnusson, comes to Conner, wearing gloves and a gown.

"If there wasn't a teaching program here, I'm positive I wouldn't be where I am today," says Conner, now a confident high school senior, speaking during a recent hospital stay. "I might not even be at high school."

Conner, who develops lung infections from cystic fibrosis, says his schoolwork "has matured me." A resident of Exeter Township, near Reading, he calls Children's "my family away from home."

He is not the only one who feels that way.

So many children are treated for long periods at Children's Hospital that the massive pediatric facility in West Philadelphia runs its own school for 300 to 400 students over the course of a year. The students meet in classrooms or are taught individually so they can keep up with their home school's curriculum.

"We want to bring normal to the abnormal for these kids," says school program manager Kelly McHugh. "We want the child to feel like a child, and not be identified by their disease."

Children's is not the only hospital doing this. The Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Delaware runs its own school program for about 100 students a year "because it's the right thing to do," says Andrea Littleton, director of the school program.

St. Christopher's Hospital for Children has three fulltime teachers at its North Philadelphia campus, plus volunteers who come in to help children with their schoolwork.

Every morning at Children's, the school program's teachers print out the hospital's census and identify the children eligible for schooling sessions - those expected to miss three to four weeks of school, the "frequent fliers," as McHugh calls them.

The program is funded by the School District of Philadelphia. And before 1996, the district also provided teachers. Now, the hospital hires about seven full-timers.

One teacher, Joan Conmy, focuses on patients from the oncology unit.

Conmy, who is in her 10th year of teaching at Children's Hospital, said that the job gives her "a sense of fulfillment in every way."

"We're doing something that's not medical, and that makes their day normal," she said.

Conmy often teaches students right up until their death.

"It does take an emotional toll on me," says Conmy, who works to hide her grief from other students.

"At the same time, I know I'm helping the families who've put such confidence and trust in me," she said.

She and the other teachers meet children in their rooms or work in a couple of classrooms that have been made to look like normal schoolrooms. The walls of one classroom in the cognitive injury section are covered with the children's artwork, colorful charts of numbers, and the alphabet. There are even a few lockers located in the back.

"We use this room mostly for children with brain injuries, who have to be specially trained to go back into a normal class setting," McHugh explained. "This classroom is used to help them learn how to do daily things, like opening their locker to get their books first thing in the morning."

Because a few patients are kept in isolation, socializing can sometimes be difficult.

"It does get lonely sometimes," 16-year-old gastroenterology patient Troy Wallace said. "But I have my phone, so I still talk to my friends all the time."

Troy also admitted that he is more efficient getting homework done when he is in the hospital, though there are downsides.

"Normally, I wouldn't start my homework until 11 o'clock at night after I get home," he said.

"It can be harder here keeping up with schoolwork because there's no one constantly pressuring you. But there isn't much else to do, so I still get a lot of work done."

Tenth grader Carly Stephens is one of the hospital's recent admissions after being diagnosed with leukemia.

Having just taken a test, Carly said she was not as stressed as she would normally be after taking one at school.

"It's a lot easier when it's one-on-one with my teacher," said Carly, who was in limited isolation.

After her session, Carly walked back to her room, usually decorated with photos of her friends and family. They had been taken down in anticipation of her discharge, but she had just found out that she would have to stay in the hospital a little longer.

Trying to keep the mood upbeat, Carly's parents jokingly said as she entered, "Back home from school! How was the bus ride?"

"I think the school program is great for her," Carly's mother, Suzanne Stephens, said. "I know she's in good hands."

Carly once wanted to become a teacher, but after being at the hospital, she is considering becoming a nurse.

"Or maybe I could teach here," she said.

Trishula Patel can be reached at or 215 854-4193