A classroom in a hospital: Doernbecher’s school program

Supporting hospitalized students for nearly a century, the Doernbecher School Program has a long history of helping students learn and grow while they are in the hospital. In an environment often full of unfamiliar faces and noises, Doernbecher’s two classrooms (one on 9S and one on 10S) and dedicated staff provide a sense of normalcy and a sense of community, customizing curricula and experiences to meet each student’s needs and interests.

Hematology Oncology Teacher Anna Balmaseda and Acute Care Teachers Debbie Mettler and Heidi Worden share more about the program and what it means for patients, families and the teachers themselves.

Do all children’s hospitals have school programs? How are they structured and funded?

Children’s hospitals typically have some component of education service, but they are very diverse across the country. Some have licensed teaching staff through local districts; others staff their own teachers. Occasionally, social workers or Child Life specialists play a role in education coordination as well. A dedicated teaching program is ideal for serving the educational needs of hospitalized children.

In our local area, hospital school programs are pretty consistent because of our administration and team format. The Multnomah Education Service District administers our program, which includes several other Portland-area hospitals, so the programs are pretty consistent. The funding for this program comes directly from the Oregon Department of Education.

How does the Doernbecher Hospital School Program differ from a more traditional school setting?

Our classrooms serve students from kindergarten through 12th grade – kind of like a one-room schoolhouse. We strive to individualize instruction but we recognize the importance of being social, so we use group activities to encourage participation and collaboration among students. Our priority is to meet students where they are – medically, emotionally and academically – then encourage them to continue to grow.

One asset of our program is that we try to create a curriculum or experience based on the student’s current interests, strengths and talents. We recognize the need to be relevant to the student and his or her family when we introduce the idea of school in the hospital, which might mean practicing math exercises or taking a spelling test. It could also mean participating in one of our partner programs like science outreach with OMSI or a music class with CCA’s MusicRx.

Generally speaking, the school is a positive experience for parents and for learners. Once parents are reassured that we will meet their child at his or her current level, they see the potential of our collaboration. As is true with the medical team, parents are a big part of the school team.

What’s your favorite part about teaching students at Doernbecher?
Working closely with such special students and families is truly an honor. As educators, we are always looking to discover a student’s gifts, strengths and talents, and this is a unique setting to do that. We’re always inspired by what we find and are encouraged by students’ growth!


Pictured from top left: Linda Criswell, Acute Care Teacher; Anna Balmaseda, Hematology Oncology Teacher; Debbie Mettler, Acute Care Teacher; Margaret Eng, Hematology Oncology Teacher; Heidi Worden, Acute Care Teacher; Kerri Russell, Intermediate Care Teacher



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About the Author

Lisa McMahan is a social media coordinator working to discover and share stories at OHSU. Got a story idea? Connect with the team: socialmedia@ohsu.edu.
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