Program aims to get every needy student a pair of glasses

Thousands of students in Baltimore could get free glasses through a new program.

Courtney Scott, a fourth-grader at Hampstead Hill Academy, didn't know she needed glasses until a couple of weeks ago.

Baltimore City health officials estimate that 10,000 of 62,000 students from pre-K through eighth grade need glasses, but most don't get them.

Thousands of Baltimore students like Courtney will receive free glasses under a new program aimed at helping kids see well enough to learn. The city health department organized the initiative, which includes eye exams, along with school district leaders, the Johns Hopkins University, the nonprofit Vision to Learn and Warby Parker, the trendy eyewear retailer.

"I'm so glad they did this," Courtney said. "A lot of kids needed glasses and didn't know it."

Perhaps more exciting, though, former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis handed Courtney her new pair of purple-framed spectacles on Tuesday. "That was pretty awesome," she said.

The program delivered its first three dozen or so pairs to students at Hampstead Hill near Patterson Park in Southeast Baltimore Tuesday afternoon and will expand to 50 schools in its first year and every school within three years. The health department estimates more than 160 of Hampstead Hill's 742 students will receive glasses this week.

Officials say the program is a basic health intervention that will improve the academic success and general well-being of students across the city. By law, students must undergo vision screening in school, but some families don't follow up with eye exams or can't afford glasses.

"It's common sense that if you can't see the board, you may fall back a bit every year, never to catch up," said Dr. Leana Wen, the city health commissioner.

She said school administrators and health officials have long known about vision-related academic deficiencies among city students but struggled with how to ensure they received follow-up services once a vision problem was detected.

State law requires the health department to screen students in pre-kindergarten, first grade and eight grade for vision problems, and that's done 22,000 times a year, health officials said.

Under the new program, every student through eighth grade will be screened over the next three years, and then a mobile van will come to the schools during the school day and offer eye exams by professionals through Vision to Learn, a Los Angeles-based group founded by businessman Austin Beutner, former publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

New York City-based Warby Parker, which opened a shop in Habor East last month, routinely donates glasses with each pair the company sells and will supply frames in Baltimore.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins School of Education and Wilmer Eye Institute have been studying the link between learning and glasses in city schools and will continue the research with the goal of informing national education policy. The researchers plan to work with teachers and others at the schools to understand and relay methods that improve the chances students use and protect their glasses.

Already Hopkins researchers have found through a pilot study that second- and third-graders who had trouble seeing properly had lower reading scores than their peers but caught up by the end of the school year after using glasses. Researchers believe the new program will have a significant impact, particularly in Baltimore's underprivileged communities, said Johns Hopkins pediatric ophthalmologist Dr. Megan Collins.

"But first we have to make sure the kids wear their glasses," she said.

Local football star Lewis might have gotten that effort started on Tuesday.

"Glasses are freakin' cool," he told the students.

Jhonny Maldonado, a practical-minded fourth-grader sporting new black frames, said there was a more basic reason to wear them: "I think they'll make me see better."

Amber Trent, a third-grader, said she still wasn't so sure she needed her new pair.

"I can see fine," she insisted while adding that she might wear them at school when she's reading. She thinks kids who actually need glasses should wear them.

The idea for the new program, called Vision for Baltimore, stemmed from a lunch last December between Wen and Ronald J. Daniels, Johns Hopkins' president. Daniels said talk turned to the schools, and he asked Wen to name one simple intervention to improve performance.

"She didn't miss a beat and said glasses for kids," Daniels said. "She said there was a long and lamentable situation where kids were subject to periodic testing but when they fail the test, they're not assured of getting corrective lenses. I looked at her and said so many things are really hard to do when we think of changing the educational system that this has got to be something manageable if we pool resources."

Daniels said there is consensus nationwide that untreated vision problems contribute to reading difficulty, and failure to learn is higher among disadvantaged students.

But, he said, researchers need to show improvements with the glasses program if they want to influence public policy. Daniels said they hope that the state, and other states, fund long-term programs that provide free glasses to students.

Beutner at Vision to Learn said the lack of glasses is an issue that "falls through the cracks." Kids then get labeled as misbehavers or slow learners, and some drop out.

"Everyone thinks someone else is dealing with the problem," Beutner said. "The ultimate goal is that every child who needs glasses gets them, and we think there are about two million" nationwide.

Health department and Johns Hopkins officials raised about $2.1 million to get the program started. Warby Parker expects to provide two pairs of glasses to 2,750 students in Baltimore during the 2016-2017 school year. That way they will have a pair for school and for home.

Warby Parker executives say glasses can have an immediate and positive impact on a person's life. Jesse Schultz, manager of social innovation at the company, said letting the kids pick their frames also will help encourage their use.

"Fashion matters to everyone," Schultz said. "And these are on your face."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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