Prevent Blindness enlists kids in battle for eye health

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Some 30,000 Chicago Public Schools students will learn about eye health in a pilot program aimed to get children and their parents to take vision more seriously.

Prevent Blindness America, based in Chicago, gave the district 1,000 kits of its new Star Pupils eye-health curriculum for kindergarteners, first- and second-graders. With four 10-minute lessons, the curriculum is intended to be easy for teachers and straightforward for students.

Star Pupils is aimed at a perennial problem: An estimated 37.5 percent of kindergarteners, second- and eighth-graders fail mandatory vision screenings, yet many do not follow up with an eye doctor to get glasses or contact lenses.

"If children learn something in school, they will come home and bug their parents until it's accomplished," said Jacinda Adams, Prevent Blindness' vice president of marketing and development. "We have several avenues to get to parents, and one we were missing was going directly to schools."

Prevent Blindness officials hope young children will be a good conduit to their parents, who ultimately find the eye doctor, schedule an appointment, take the child to the doctor and pay the bill.

But officials at the nonprofit know from experience the challenge of reaching parents. Prevent Blindness gives vouchers to CPS students whose families can't afford eye exams and glasses. Many vouchers are not used, Adams said.

Among youths, the most common eye problems are myopia and astigmatism, said Dr. Sandra Block, medical director of school-based vision clinics at the Illinois College of Optometry. Both conditions and far-sightedness, which is less common, can affect learning.

Children with myopia, or near-sightedness, have trouble seeing objects that are far away and may not be able to see the blackboard unless they sit in front of the classroom. About 2 percent of first-graders and 15 percent of high school freshman have myopia, according to the federal government's National Eye Institute.

With astigmatism, the eye is shaped like a football instead of a basketball, causing images to appear blurry and stretched out. Children with astigmatism and farsightedness have trouble reading, may complain of headaches and may not do well in school, Block said.

"People really need to know how important eye care is," she said.

Uncorrected vision problems can lead to long-term problems such as lazy eye, in which one eye is turned in and the other out, she said.

Students from low-income families are most at risk. Blindness and visual impairment affect 3.4 percent of low-income children versus 2 percent of middle- and high-income children, according to the National Eye Institute.

CPS and the Illinois College of Optometry in January opened an eye clinic at Princeton Elementary School on the South Side to help low-income students who fail in-school screenings.

Block, who runs the clinic, said students coming in had lost their glasses from a week to four years ago. One high school student was using a friend's glasses to see the board, she said.

About three-quarters of students referred to the clinic need corrective lenses.

"We're seeing students with the greatest vision needs coming to the clinic," said Ken Papineau, CPS' director of coordinated school health.

Likewise, schools receiving the Star Pupils curriculum have the highest rates of students who fail in-school vision screenings, Papineau said. Star Pupils will be used in 108 schools throughout the city this year.

Of the curriculum, Papineau said, "It's meaningful for a school to feel like they have materials and resources to share with its students."

For school officials, the focus is on making sure students who fail in-school vision screenings get a full eye exam. So far this school year, about 62,200 students have failed the screening of the 165,000 tested through February.

Adams, of Prevent Blindness, said teachers will be surveyed for input on how students responded to the instructional materials, which include take-home items such as a calendar, activity book and worksheets.

Students also receive a letter for their parents announcing that eye health is being taught in class.

Prevent Blindness plans to give CPS another 1,000 Star Pupils kits at the end of the 2011-12 school year, most likely for third- through fifth-graders. Officials also are discussing a study of the curriculum's effectiveness, Adams said.

"It's about empowering parent to make great decisions about their children's vision health," she said. "The onus is on teachers to get kids excited so kids go home and get their parents excited."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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