When kids started school at Kimpton Middle School this year, the Brave Strong Girl was nowhere in sight.

But their faces lit up when someone new rolled into the first-period eighth-grade language arts class — a 4-foot-tall robot on wheels that announced with confidence that “Leah Merriman has entered the building.”

Leah Merriman, a 13-year-old student at Kimpton in the Stow-Munroe Falls City School District, is attending school this year with the help of VGo. The livestreaming robotic presence helps Leah navigate through school from the comfort of her own home.

Brave Strong Girl

Leah is known as the Brave Strong Girl to many of her friends and family.

It’s a nickname well-earned: Leah was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor in 2012. Since then, she’s endured many rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, all while keeping up with her schoolwork.

“She’s very school-motivated,” said Sue Palchesko, the principal at Kimpton. “It’s really what keeps her going.”

The last two years have been increasingly difficult for Leah to be in school. In 2015, she had to go to Boston for radiation therapy and missed almost her entire sixth-grade year. And last year, though she tried to attend for a couple of weeks, Leah was once again too sick and reverted to Kimpton’s online coursework.

Gina Merriman, Leah’s mom, said she was grateful that Leah could get caught up on school online.

Still, she was looking for something more.

“Leah’s always loved school, and I just felt like the traditional classroom was a better fit for her than what the online school had to offer,” said Gina Merriman, who is on leave from her job as a fifth-grade teacher in the district, where she has taught for 20 years.

Gina Merriman set out to find alternatives and came across VGo, a 20-pound robot with livestreaming and maneuvering capabilities.

Through an app, VGo displays Leah’s face to her classmates in real time on a 6-inch LCD display. In turn, the classroom is displayed on Leah’s computer, much like a Skype or FaceTime call.

The advantages of VGo in a classroom setting go far beyond those of a Skype call, though, Leah’s mom said.

Leah can navigate VGo from her home with the simple touch of a button. The VGo also is equipped with screenshot capabilities, an “obstacle and cliff detection sensor” and front LED lighting that flashes when Leah needs to get a teacher’s attention.

Gina Merriman proposed that the Stow-Munroe Falls Board of Education help her cover half the cost. The board did one better and covered it in full, coming out to a little more than $3,000.

“She looks forward to it every day,” Leah’s mom said. “Even when she’s not feeling well, she likes to go in and participate.”

Set up in the front room of her home with her own desk and color-coordinating school supplies, Leah is in class until noon most days.

“I like the VGo because I get to hear my teachers explain things, and I get to see my friends,” Leah said.

Road bumps

Thanks to VGo, Leah has been in class since the first day of school Aug. 23, allowing her to interact with classmates and teachers, participate in class and work in groups.

For the kids in the building, going to school with a robot is nearly as natural as using a smartphone.

The adults, on the other hand, are still adjusting to the robo-student.

“We both have dreams about the VGo,” Palchesko said as she sat in her office with assistant principal Mike Love. “We get the chills still.”

Palchesko and Love said the VGo is almost like having another student, but with more surprises — like the night a custodian was working late at the school and saw the VGo pass by his door on its own, apparently heading to dock itself on the charger for the night.

“It’s always a little scary to have a new piece of technology,” Love said.

Aside from the occasional cryptic movements, Love and Palchesko said the problems have been minimal.

The biggest obstacle so far has been WiFi connection. It can be spotty in the hallways and nearly nonexistent in the elevators, which the VGo must use every day to move from classroom to classroom.

Ambassadors

Cue the VGo student ambassadors — four of Leah’s best friends at the school who escort the robot to class.

Leah can navigate the bot from home, but it gets wobbly when it runs over uneven terrain, and it can be a bit slow moving through the halls on its own.

“Leah’s a very popular girl. They all jumped at the opportunity,” Love said. “We would’ve had 100 kids do it.”

On a recent Wednesday during school, a class of eighth-graders worked on math problems in rows of desks as the VGo stood in the middle.

Kids whispered and giggled to one another and Leah before two student ambassadors, Audrey Allendorf and Olivia Casalinova, scooped up the VGo to head to Leah’s next class. They leave a few minutes early to avoid the stampede of middle school feet when the bell rings.

Audrey and Olivia stood on either side of the VGo as it slowly rolled down the halls. Once it passed over a divider in the floor, Audrey kicked it into turbo gear to get it moving at a walking pace.

“It’s pretty cool that she can do everything from home,” Audrey said.

When they got to science class, they passed it off to Alaina Hoover, another student ambassador.

“It’s helpful for her because she gets to experience what other people get to experience,” Alaina said. “Not many other schools get to say they have a robot walking around.”

Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.