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What happens to learning when students get much-needed glasses

Good vision care is a luxury for families who can’t easily afford the time or money spent getting a child’s first pair of glasses. But a new program called Vision for Baltimore called provides eye exams and two pairs of glasses to every student who needs them, totally free of charge -- a simple thing that can dramatically improve the quality of their education. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, a story from Baltimore. City leaders built a broad coalition to help solve a problem for students there- access to vision care.

    William Brangham reports for our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • Woman:

    Cover your left eye for me. Left. Can you see that line under the red line?

  • William Brangham:

    Vision checks at the start of the school year are routine for many students around the country. And it’s the same here at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in Baltimore.

    Reading those little letters from a distance is no problem for some.

  • Student:

    D, C, Z, O, T, D, P.

  • William Brangham:

    But for others…

  • Woman:

    Read that line again for me? Is that all you can see?

  • William Brangham:

    For kids with poor vision, their parents now have to start a long and expensive process, eye doctors, opticians, buying glasses.

  • Dr. Leana Wen:

    We live in a community where, unfortunately, so many of our children live below the poverty line, where there are many barriers to care, including transportation and ability to pay.

  • William Brangham:

    Doctor Leana Wen is the health commissioner at the Baltimore City Department of Health.

  • Dr. Leana Wen:

    Even parents finding out, the process of getting those test results relayed to parents, or insurance and reimbursement, all these were barriers to care.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Wen helped usher in a new program called Vision for Baltimore. It provides eye exams, two pairs of glasses to every student who needs them right in their own school, and it’s all totally free of charge.

  • Dr. Leana Wen:

    About 25 percent of our schoolchildren needed glasses, but were not getting them. That’s estimated to be 15,000 to 20,000 of our kids who’ll end up having to look at the blackboard, and it’s blurry, and they don’t know why, and think that it’s normal.

  • William Brangham:

    First, the city health department identifies which students need glasses. A few weeks later, the national nonprofit group Vision to Learn arrives at school in a mobile eye clinic to prescribe lenses.

    Eyewear retailer Warby Parker donates the frames. Meanwhile, researchers from Johns Hopkins University study the students’ academic progress after they have gotten glasses.

  • Dr. Leana Wen:

    We can tell you that we have already done over 18,000 screenings of our children. More than 2,000 of our kids have gotten glasses. Regardless of ability to pay, within three years, we’re going to ensure that every child in Baltimore City, K-8, who needs glasses will be able to get them.

  • William Brangham:

    Khloe Mangrover is a second grader at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School. Last year, she was part of the first group of students to receive their free eye exam and pair of glasses through the program.

  • Khloe Mangrover:

    When I didn’t have glasses, I couldn’t see the board, so that’s when I came and sit in the front.

  • William Brangham:

    Her grandmother, Deboris Jackson, says Vision for Baltimore is a huge help for their family.

  • Deboris Jackson:

    Her mother works. And that’s time that she ain’t got to take off from work for her to get — to see about her getting her glasses or whatever. And there’s handling — I’m her backup, so what she can’t do, I do.

    That is so very — considering I don’t drive. When she’s in school and she can’t see the blackboard, she might hear, but she can’t really see without her glasses.

  • William Brangham:

    Maryland law requires students get vision screenings in pre-K and first grade, but not again until eighth grade. That’s a big gap for kids whose eyesight may get worse during elementary school.

    And while some health insurance plans cover one pair of glasses per year, if something happens to those glasses, parents have to buy new ones.

  • Dr. Megan Collins:

    What we expect is that it will definitely show a positive impact on their academic scores.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Megan Collins at Johns Hopkins Hospital is one of those tracking the students’ progress. Her past research makes her optimistic. In 2014, she studied 321 elementary students in Baltimore who were given eye exams and glasses.

  • Dr. Megan Collins:

    Kids who we gave glasses to did better on their reading assessments than kids who didn’t need glasses, showing that there was a potential that giving them glasses was improving their reading scores.

  • William Brangham:

    Amber Singleton is an optician with Vision to Learn. She travels from school to school helping kids get the right prescription.

  • Amber Singleton:

    We will pretty much do a pretest, just kind of get a starting point for the prescription. And then once I have that preliminary information, I send them back to the doctor. They will do a full exam.

  • William Brangham:

    After the exam, students get to pick fashionable frames in black, red, pink or blue.

  • Student:

    I picked pink because that’s my favorite color.

  • William Brangham:

    We returned a couple weeks later to Matthew A. Henson Elementary School, when students got their first pairs of free glasses.

  • Amber Singleton:

    Well, hello. How are you? What’s your name?

  • William Brangham:

    Fifth grader Markel Gibson is getting her first pair ever.

  • Amber Singleton:

    How cute are you?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Markel Gibson:

    I like them.

  • Amber Singleton:

    So, how much of a difference do glasses really make? I asked Markel to read a simple book with and without her new glasses.

    Here’s how she read without them-

  • Markel Gibson:

    “But, mother, said the little one, why do you love me when sometimes I am naughty and run away when you are trying to dress me? I never said I stopped loving you when you are naughty, did I, asked his mother.”

  • William Brangham:

    Try that again with your glasses.

  • Markel Gibson:

    “But, mother, said the little one, why do you love me when sometimes I am naughty and run away when you are trying to dress me? I never said I stopped loving you when you are naughty, did I, asked his mother.”

  • William Brangham:

    Do you see how much faster you’re reading now? That’s pretty great.

    Amber Singleton, who’s fitted dozens and dozens of kids, was moved to tears seeing Markel read so much better.

  • Amber Singleton:

    I don’t get to see them when they go back to class, and I have never witnessed the immediate difference. Like, that was proof in the pudding, definitely. Yes, I teared up.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amber Singleton:

    That was awesome.

  • William Brangham:

    Wade Brown is the local program director for Baltimore Vision to Learn.

  • Wade Brown:

    Children don’t know to tell you they can’t see in most cases. A child trying to read for their parent and having difficulty in reading to a parent means they just need help with reading. So, they’re thinking, OK, let me help you with the words, still missing that it’s not the words. It’s the vision.

  • William Brangham:

    It’s got to be a pretty great feeling to see the transformation when a kid puts those glasses on their face.

  • Wade Brown:

    Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

    And, see, for me, it’s personal, because I’m one of these kids. So, to know that I’m doing something that’s making an impact earlier that quite possibly can make a greater impact in their lives as they grow, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.

  • William Brangham:

    While Vision to Learn operates in at least 18 other cities around the country, its Baltimore program is the largest. And with dozens more schools to visit, they say their work has hardly begun.

  • Amber Singleton:

    Absolutely amazing.

  • William Brangham:

    In Baltimore, I’m William Brangham for the PBS NewsHour.

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