Baltimore schools program has provided 1,000 pairs of free glasses to students

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises welcomed fifth-grader Dierra Sollers to the "club of four-eyed seeing people" Wednesday, handing her blue-rimmed glasses, the 1,000th pair given out to city students thanks to a program begun last May.

Dozens of students gathered at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School in East Baltimore to mark the milestone. The Vision for Baltimore program was launched a year ago to help ensure that children get the glasses they need so they can learn.

Dierra, 11, was one of 70 children at the school who have received a free pair.

"Young people: You are worth the investment," said Santelises, who wears red-rimmed glasses. "Now that you're getting those glasses and you can see, my charge to you is, make sure you read as much as possible.

"Make sure you open your eyes even further to see the world around you, both what you want to change as well as what you can be and do."

All children in Baltimore's elementary and middle schools receive free screenings at school, as well as eye exams and two pairs of glasses, as needed, under the city Health Department program offered through a partnership with the schools system, the Johns Hopkins University, nonprofit Vision to Learn and glasses designer Warby Parker.

The program has screened more than 15,000 students in 42 Baltimore schools since May. Officials expect that all 62,000 children in city elementary and middle schools will be served in the next two years. Screenings will continue after that.

Thousands are expected to need glasses.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said the program could cut down on the the number of children referred to special-education programs.

"Oftentimes, we may think it's a learning disability, only to learn that it is vision problem," Pugh said. "Eyeglasses are an essential tool for those who need it."

Under state law, students must receive vision screenings in school in certain grades, but families don't always follow up with eye exams or are able to pay for glasses.

An exact cost of the program to date wasn't immediately available. It is paid for through a combination of grants, philanthropic contributions, eyeglass donations by Warby Parker and insurance billings.

The program launched with about $2.1 million raised by the city Health Department and Hopkins officials.

Anora Gousse said her son, Adam, complained that he couldn't see clearly, but work schedules made it difficult for her and her husband to get him to the eye doctor. When he was offered a free eye exam and glasses last year, the Gousses jumped at the chance.

Having the glasses is helping foster a love of reading in her son, Gousse said. Twelve-year-old Adam, now a sixth-grader at Hampstead Hill Academy, fell asleep Tuesday night reading "Diary of Wimpy Kid," she said.

"Adam can see so clearly now that when Adam should be sleeping at night, Adam is up reading his books," Gousse said.

Hopkins researchers are evaluating the program to see if providing the glasses can be linked to improving grades. The goal is to inform national education policy.

Eleven-year-old Amira Bailey said she is waiting on a pink pair of frames to help her do better in school — and complement her sense of fashion.

"I have had problems with reading and seeing what has been written on the board," said Amira, a fifth-grader at Bernard Harris. "Now, because of this program, I will be able to see better and achieve more in my academics.

"I am beyond excited and I cannot wait to receive my glasses. I know they will add to my style. Again, I just want to say thank you to the Vision for Baltimore. You guys rock!"

ywenger@baltsun.com

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