Packard Children’s patients learn and make friends at hospital school

Packard Children's student attendant Helen Madrigal, right, plays a counting game with Brissa Cruz-Gonzalez, 6, to help her learn addition skills. The hospital's teachers work with patients in grades K-12 to help them keep up with their lessons while they are hospitalized.
Steve Fisch

Kids keep up with their studies

For most children and teenagers, “normal life” means attending school. When a serious illness puts them in the hospital, kids may be upset.

“They say, ‘I’m not going to be in school, be with my friends or graduate with my class,’” said Kathy Ho, a teacher at the hospital school at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. “When you take that away, it’s almost more devastating than bad news about their health.”

Fortunately, Ho and her colleagues are ready to help. Together, the team of four teachers run the K-12 hospital school, which is part of the Palo Alto Unified School District. Every year, they work with several hundred children, who may receive instruction for a few days, many weeks or the entire year. The school helps patients keep up with their coursework and acts as an oasis of learning, friendship and fun inside the hospital.

“Providing the opportunity for our students to stay on par with their peers at home means giving them hope that things are going to be normal again,” Ho said.

Excited and engaged

Shortly after patients arrive at the hospital, the teachers assess their needs.

“Some are too sick and are not ready for any school,” Ho said. “For those who are well enough, we judge what they’re able to do and what they want to work on.”

Pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade receive instruction in English, language arts and math. For older students, the teachers coordinate with a counselor at their usual school to determine if the students can work on assignments while they are away. For patients who will be hospitalized for several months, enrollment can be transferred to Palo Alto. The teachers also evaluate whether pupils are well enough to go to the hospital’s two classrooms or if they need bedside lessons.

Teaching in a hospital has challenges. Ho’s team used to struggle to offer science experiments, for example, since they couldn’t use dangerous materials such as Bunsen burners or living specimens.

In 2008, Ho tapped a local resource: Stanford scientist Andrew Spakowitz, PhD, associate professor of chemical engineering and of materials science and engineering. Ever since, Spakowitz has recruited Stanford undergraduate and graduate students to design biology, chemistry, physics and engineering experiments that fit California curriculum standards.

“The Stanford students come up with clever ways to develop new labs suitable for the hospital environment,” Spakowitz said, noting that they’ve created more than 30 lab activities, each using cheap, safe, easily available materials.

To get around the restriction on bringing living specimens into the hospital, one biology lab uses Stanford students as guinea pigs: While they jog in place, the hospital students measure variables such as heart rate and breath volume. An engineering lab asks kids to evaluate the good and bad features of hospital gowns. In an optics lab, students point inexpensive handheld lasers through Jell-O to see how the material bends light.

The labs get rave reviews from young pupils. “Science gets kids excited and engaged,” Ho said. “They can forget for a while that they’re in the hospital.”

Extracurricular activities

The hospital school also provides extracurricular activities such as art and drama. And any student who has attended classes at the hospital during the school year is invited to the spring prom, an evening of fun, games, food and dancing.

In addition to school activities, students bond over their medical experiences.

“They may not have the same diagnoses, but they help each other talk through things,” Ho said. “A kid who has had a heart transplant maybe empathizes with a kid with cancer.”

The older students mentor the younger ones as well, with high schoolers sometimes befriending kindergarteners. “It’s so fun to watch,” Ho said.

The school is a meaningful part of the Palo Alto community, she added. “Being able to offer this service to any child who needs it because they are temporarily hospitalized in Palo Alto is incredibly important,” Ho said. “We’re lucky that we can provide all of these children with a dynamic, really vibrant school environment.”