The Mobile Classroom: New nonprofit caters to ill and home-bound students -- for free

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It took almost losing her job for Sara Woodyard to realize she couldn't have done enough with it anyway. Facing the end of the probation period that marked the first three years of her work life, Woodyard, a fifth-grade teacher, developed an acute awareness of what budget cuts can mean to those inside the classroom -- and those outside of it. When Sara was cut, too, she went mobile.

Yesterday marked the first official day of the nonprofit Woodyard and teaching partner Stephanie Peters created to focus on ill and injured students. The Mobile Classroom will take to the roads to tutor students whose health prevents them from attending traditional classrooms. The idea: No sick child should be left behind.

"Our classroom budgets were being cut dramatically, and we thought, 'What happens to the kids who can't get to the classroom?''" recalls Woodyard, who taught a wide range of subjects during three years at a public school in Federal Heights. "They're recovering for cancer or organ transplants, and their educational services are being cut down worse than ours. The one home-bound teacher per district on average isn't enough to help every student to the level he or she needs."

Although the newly minted nonprofit comes with high standards of education and an elevated moral code, it's low on financial pay-off. Woodyard and Peters are currently its only two employees, and their educational attention is dedicated entirely to their sole client, a sixth-grade girl recovering from a heart transplant at the Ronald McDonald House.

While they wait for their roster to increase, the two dedicate time not spent tutoring to recruit both students and a cadre of teacher volunteers. Woodyard and Peters are certified in all subjects K-12, but this restricts The Mobile Classroom from catering to high school students or offering specialists in more advanced subjects.

"We're looking for teachers who are enthusiastic about their profession, passionate about working with kids and understand the need of public education," Woodyard says. "We want to ensure that the kids who are most in need of support, from illness or from poverty, receive the same access to and level of education that their peers do." Peters, previously a second grade and ESL teacher in Glenwood Springs, and Woodyard are currently open to travel as far north as Longmont and as far south as Parker for The Mobile Classroom, but they'd like to see the program spread across all of the state's larger cities.

Families pay nothing for the 25-year-old duo's services, thanks to their 501(c)(3) status and the series of tax-deductible donations currently keeping the project afloat. The Mobile Classroom rotates through grant applications on a regular basis, but its youth limits the nonprofit from many offers.

"If their child was healthy and in public school, it would be free, so why should it cost money if they're sick?" Woodyard says.

Although Woodyard and Peters have yet to meet with any opposition, they plan to avoid any that might come from the public school system. "It's something we could possibly anticipate, but we're not big enough yet," Woodyard says. "The public sector already faces more problems with budget and personnel cuts, so I'd hope we could work together if that ever happens, to provide the best education for everybody."

On a personal level, Woodyard maintains a connection to her home-bound students through a childhood experience with illness. When she was in seventh grade, Woodyard's mother developed cancer and stopped working to spend all of her time at home. "I can't imagine a child going through all this and still making sure to graduate high school," Woodyard says. "My grades slipped, and I wasn't even the one who was sick."

While The Mobile Classroom develops into a more substantial presence, Woodyard and Peters continue to reach out to fellow nonprofits to partner. Relationships with Healthy Learning Paths and the Ronald McDonald house allow the group to expand its brand while it struggles to increase its size.

"The reaction we've been getting is, 'We never thought about that,' but in a positive way," Woodyard says. "They're surprised that something more solid isn't in place for these kids. It's a good point."

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