At first glance, they look like the typical classroom, filled with books, computers, and construction-paper artwork. But as the students arrive, it’s clear these are very special places to learn. Alongside children in regular clothes are many in hospital gowns or wheelchairs, wearing face masks or pushing IV poles.

In an environment full of unfamiliar faces and noises, the in-house school programs at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals provide a sense of normalcy and community to thousands of young people each year. Here, the focus is strictly on opportunities. Patients are treated as students with individual strengths and skills rather than diagnoses or injuries.

“We are committed to making sure that education is a vital part of a child’s hospital experience,” says Maggie Greenblatt, lead teacher in the UCSF Benioff Oakland schoolroom.

Staffed by credentialed teachers, the school programs offer a fully accredited academic curriculum for school-age students. Teachers coordinate closely with the schools where patients are enrolled, and then provide support for everything from kindergarten through AP calculus. Students also participate in enrichment activities such as poetry, art, origami, and hands-on science workshops – even a glitzy prom for teen patients.

For those too sick to attend classroom sessions or undergoing treatment that requires isolation, the teachers bring lessons and engaging activities straight to their bedsides.

Delivering the healing power of education to hospitalized children requires the support of our community. In San Francisco, the Marie Wattis School is funded by an anonymous endowment. The Oakland program recently received a generous gift following school district budget cuts that impacted staffing.

Donor Cathy VandenBerghe, who worked at the school program on our Oakland campus 25 years ago, says she and her husband Mark are thrilled to help meet children’s emotional and social needs.

“At the hospital, school helps kids feel normal in the midst of a medical crisis,” VandenBerghe says. “They feel like part of something, they feel motivated, and they feel loved.”

Our patients may not realize how important attending school is to their recovery.  But as they laugh and learn with their fellow students, their smiles say it all.