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Photos by Scott Buschman

Even on his best days, Joey Hocter wasn’t healthy enough to attend regular school. So he received instruction two or three days a week from Gianna Alexander, a home-hospital teacher who makes house calls to severely ill students.

On a good day, Joey sat in his wheelchair by the door, eagerly awaiting a visit from Alexander, who spent a few hours with him each time. However, there were bad days when he couldn’t get out of bed. That’s when Alexander provided instruction at his bedside.

Gianna Alexander

Alexander is a member of the Liberty Education Association, a school site representative for Heritage High School and a State Council representative. For more than 14 years, she has been a special education teacher for students with mild to severe disabilities at three school sites in Brentwood: Gateway Adult Transition Program, Liberty High and Heritage High. She has also been a home-hospital teacher for the same number of years, teaching severely ill students in their homes after the school day ends.

“Gianna is wonderful,” says Debra Hocter, Joey’s mother. “He couldn’t wait for her to visit.”

Joey has spastic cerebral palsy and cognitive delay, and is a quadriplegic. He attended public school for many years, but after numerous illnesses and surgeries, his immune system became compromised, so homeschooling was required.

Even though she has the word “hospital” in her job title, Alexander seldom teaches students who are hospitalized, because they are too ill to process instruction during their stay. Often her students are in and out of the hospital; sometimes they get well enough to return to school.

Alexander has been Joey’s teacher since he was 17, and she is considered a member of the Hocter family.

On his 22nd birthday, Joey “aged out” of home-hospital teacher services, which he received through Liberty Union High School District in Brentwood. He now receives services from an adult homeschool community-based program for adults with special needs living in Contra Costa County.

Joey worried he wouldn’t see Alexander after he aged out. Though she’s no longer his teacher, she still visits and helps strengthen Joey’s connection to the outside world. She and his family have been on field trips to a bowling alley, a Jelly Belly factory, music concerts, theatrical plays, the Chabot Space and Science Center, the C.A.S.T for Kids fishing program, and even school dances and proms.

“I don’t want him to become isolated from the world,” she explains.

Debra Hocter, her son Joey Hocter, and Gianna Alexander

Joey loves using an iPad, so Alexander used life skills computer programs that are engaging. She worked with him to practice the skills that he was studying after seeing short video presentations on topics such as how to order food in a restaurant, make a sandwich, create a shopping list, fold laundry, and understand the value of coins and dollar bills.

As a mother of an adult son who is quadriplegic, Alexander has the skill set and empathy to make a difference in the lives of medically fragile students and their families.

“Teaching students like Joey is a way that I can give back,” says Alexander, who currently homeschools three students with special needs. “I definitely have a special rapport with these students. And as the mother of a disabled son, I can relate to what parents are going through.”

Alexander formerly tutored children in homeless shelters and foster homes. She enjoyed it so much, she decided to earn her teaching credential in special education and help with the homeschooling of students too ill to attend school.

“I get more out of teaching medically fragile students than you can imagine. We have a strong connection. Sometimes I’m tired from teaching all day and doing IEPs. But when I go to my students’ homes and they’re so excited to see me, it’s totally worth it. It warms my heart.”

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