Opinion: Good vision is key for kids’ success

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Children who need glasses and don’t have them are more likely to be misdiagnosed with behavioral issues in kindergarten, be considered “slow” learners by 5th grade and drop out of high school.

What would you do if you found out a simple intervention costing just a bit more than $100 would help a child feel better about themselves and do much better in school? And you also learned that millions of children across the country would benefit from this miraculous treatment?

Our hope is you would move heaven and earth to make sure every child gets this help — a pair of glasses. That’s what Vision To Learn is doing by providing eye exams and glasses to children at schools in more than 350 low-income communities across the country from Honolulu to Atlanta.

Here’s how it works. Vision To Learn teams with classroom educators, school nurses and public health departments to make sure every child receives a vision screening. And for children who don’t pass the screening, Vision To Learn vans, staffed with trained eye care professionals, visit schools to provide eye exams and glasses. All free of charge to the child and their family.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

In Atlanta, the Hawks Foundation provided start-up funding to help launch Vision To Learn in the community, and has provided continuing support to expand the program’s reach to communities throughout Metro Atlanta. More recently, budget dollars from Fulton County Schools and Gwinnett County Public Schools Foundation have been dedicated to help thousands of additional kids in the years to come.

To date, nearly 14,000 Atlanta students have benefited from this program. Across the country, Vision To Learn has helped provide more than 1.2 million children with vision screenings, 300,000 with eye exams and almost 250,000 with glasses. This year another 100,000 children will receive glasses despite the challenge COVID-19 continues to present at schools.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

The problem is not a new one. About one in four children, whether from a family with means or a family struggling to get by, will naturally need glasses.

Children who need glasses and don’t have them are more likely to be misdiagnosed with behavioral issues in kindergarten, be considered “slow” learners by 5th grade and drop out of high school as they look for recognition and a sense of belonging on the street which they cannot find in school.

Unfortunately, in low-income communities, most children who need glasses don’t have them due to financial constraints, language barriers, unresponsive health bureaucracies or the simple fact there are no eye care professionals in their neighborhood. Vision To Learn solves the problem by bringing the glasses to the kids where they are almost every day — their local neighborhood school.

At a time when our country is struggling to figure out what a just and equitable future should look like, this provides a good start.

Today, we have solid evidence that this program helps kids succeed in school: a groundbreaking study just published in The Journal of the American Medical Association Ophthalmology by researchers from the Center for Research and Reform in Education and the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

The researchers conducted the most rigorous study in the U.S. to measure the impact of providing eyeglasses to students directly in their schools. Thousands of children from more than 100 schools in Baltimore participated in the study. Guess what? The children who received glasses did better in school and the impacts were greater than more costly measures such as lengthening the school day, providing computers or creating charter schools.

The children who showed the biggest gains, the equivalent of an additional four to six months of learning, are those who are often the hardest to help — students in the bottom quarter of their class academically and students with learning differences and disabilities.

Practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems are what is needed now more than ever. Vision To Learn brings together partners from government, business, philanthropic organizations and labor to help children in need, over 90% of whom are Black or Latino.

Emerson is a 9-year-old boy from Atlanta. Emerson used to squint his eyes and change his seat frequently to see the board. His teacher noticed that he was struggling to keep up in class and found it challenging to copy important information on the board into his journal. As a result, he was behind his peers. After Vision To Learn gave Emerson his new glasses, he walked in with a huge smile on his face. He showed the whole class and said, “I can finally see.”

His teacher says, “Emerson is confident and pleasant after receiving the glasses [and] is participating more often during class instruction.”

That’s a vision for the future in Atlanta we can all support.

Austin Beutner is founder and chairman, Vision To Learn. Steve Koonin is CEO, Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena.