This school year, the Mason City School District has enrolled 57 students who are affiliated with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center’s Destination Excellence Program. Eighteen students are patients and 39 are siblings of patients. Fifty-four of these students have enrolled since the start of the school year. Six have withdrawn since the start of the school year.
Mason City Schools staff are doing their best in a difficult situation that is outside their control. The medical visitors represent a significant increase in the district’s English as a Second Language enrollment, and are typically here on visas which prohibit enrollment in school.
“We’re concerned about our staff’s capacity (and the resources required) to meet the complex needs of these medical visitors,” said Dr. Heather Sass, Chief Academic Officer.
Medical visitors and their siblings often have sporadic attendance due to medical treatment which interrupts the educational program - minimizing educational gains. Patients are sometimes only enrolled for a few weeks before they begin receiving treatment and must be out of school for several weeks following. In addition, delivering high quality education is difficult due to their varying lengths of stay, and because of the need to renew medical visas every six months.
Many of the students are well below grade level so they need to “catch up” at the same time they are trying to learn English. Due to their illnesses, they may also have missed significant amounts of school in their own countries and are educationally behind in their native language as well.
Financially, the district estimates that serving medical visitors will cost approximately $522,000 for the 2015-2016 school year. This increase is primarily due to the necessity of employing additional staff and securing interpreting services.
The Mason City School District is following convoluted laws. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regulation, 8 CFR 214.2(b)(7), specifically prohibits study in the United States unless the family and/or student has acquired F-1 (academic student) or M-1 (vocational student) status. However, school districts are not allowed to ask for proof of visa status, nor can they require families to adhere to the requirements of their visas. District legal counsel (and two subsequent legal opinions from other law firms) advised the district that it must enroll medical visitors who live in our school district.
The Mason City School District has tried to work with senior leadership at Children’s Hospital to address the situation. Children’s Hospital assembled a leadership team to do near-term and long-term planning and dedicated funds to implement its Destination Excellence program.
The Destination Excellence program recruits families from other regions and countries and is part of the hospital’s overall business plan. “From a financial standpoint, attracting patients both nationally and internationally diversifies our revenue stream. At a time when reimbursement rates are declining, this is vital to our fiscal health,” said Bill Kent, Senior V.P. Infrastructure and Operations in a hospital publication about the program. “Having a larger pool of patients with rare diseases who require our unique expertise improves our ability to recruit top talent….”
According to hospital staff, many of these international patients receive funding from their governments for medical and living expenses. However, educational expenses are not covered, and public schools cannot charge students for services. To date, Children’s Hospital has not offered to offset these educational costs, nor have they offered to develop an educational program that complies with the medical visa.
The Mason City School District is a vibrant district that attracts families from all over the world. Students in Mason’s English as a Second Language Program speak over 40 different languages - ranging from Amharic to Vietnamese. This year’s top languages include Spanish (94 learners), Arabic (76 learners), Japanese (73 learners), Chinese/Mandarin (70 learners) and Teluga (68 learners).
“Families from all over the world continue to call Mason Schools home - which enriches our district and better prepares our learners for the global workforce. However, we are increasingly concerned about the district’s ability to serve medical visitors and worry about the increased pressure on the system - especially with lack of assurance from Children’s that there is a “ceiling” for the number of families they will recruit,” said Dr. Heather Sass, Chief Academic Officer.