There is a crisis in California’s schools. More than a quarter of a million children, most of them from poor and minority backgrounds, lack the technology they need to succeed in school.
But what they need has nothing to do with mobile devices or educational apps. It’s a technology nearly 800 years old: eyeglasses.
About 250,000 California schoolchildren don’t have the glasses they need to read the board, read books, study math and fully participate in their classes. About 95% of the public school students who need glasses enter school without them. These students are likely to fall behind and to frustrate their teachers and parents.
It’s often not a money issue. Eye exams and corrective lenses are covered by Medi-Cal and many insurance plans. But there is a huge gap between coverage and care. Sometimes it’s that parents and teachers simply haven’t noticed the problem. And then there are the logistical issues: Parents have to take time off from work, and often they must arrange and pay for transportation. And navigating the healthcare system can be daunting. These things often keep kids, especially those from low-income families, out of the doctor’s office.
In 2012, we started Vision to Learn to help address this problem. The idea is simple. Instead of forcing families to go to where the glasses are — the eye clinic — we bring the glasses to where the kids are: the schools.
We assembled a team of dedicated eye doctors and turned a couple of buses into mobile eye clinics. We travel to public and parochial schools in low-income communities in Los Angeles and screen each and every student. We fit those kids who need them with glasses and let them pick their own frames, something they really enjoy. Two weeks later, we return to deliver the new glasses free of charge. We recently completed our first full year and have helped more than 10,000 kids.
We wondered what effect the glasses were having on the kids who got them, so we commissioned an independent study by faculty members of the UCLA schools of medicine and public health. The results, released officially last week, could not be clearer.
In numerous focus groups with students, parents and teachers, the researchers repeatedly heard about how students’ classroom performance improved. They approached their schoolwork with more confidence and had more success.
One student summed it up: “When I didn’t have glasses, I had bad grades and my mom and dad weren’t happy.”
Parents reported a huge sense of relief. They said they could now understand their kids’ previous academic struggles and why their children had been anxious about school. In the words of one parent: “The teacher told me that now I don’t have to try to keep [my daughter’s] focus.... Now she sees and tries, and I don’t have to be after her like before.”
Another spoke of the anxiety her child felt about going to school, “Why didn’t he sleep? Why was he scared? I didn’t know that it was because of” his vision.
The teachers surveyed were equally enthusiastic, saying that the students who got glasses not only learned more but also became active learners. “A couple of the really shy kids started participating more.… They started coming out of their shell,” observed one teacher.
Another teacher reported: “I’ve had about six kids that received glasses, and these are the kids [who] were distracting other kids, socializing and you know I just couldn’t get it…. But when they got the glasses, that kind of just changed; it went away.”
Helping so many students at the same time has another benefit. With multiple students getting glasses, the old “four-eyes” stigma loses its power. It’s just the opposite. As one teacher reported, the students “are always wearing their glasses, they are proud to wear them. It’s … a fashion statement.”
In Los Angeles, 1 out of 7 public school students lacks the glasses he or she needs. Across the country, more than a million children are struggling in school because they don’t have glasses. Imagine if a million kids came to school without shoes. We’d do something about it. Well, a million school kids across America need glasses. It’s time to do something.
Austin Beutner is the former first deputy mayor of Los Angeles and founder of Vision to Learn.