Foundation funds student vision project Pilot program will focus on two middle schools with testing, free glasses

February 11, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Many Baltimore City middle school students can't see as well as they should and may have academic problems as a result.

They can't see well because they don't have eyeglasses. They don't have glasses because their problem hasn't been identified, they can't afford glasses or their parents don't, or can't, make their children's below-par eyesight a priority.

However, practical help is on the way, at least for some of the city's 25,000 middle schoolers.

In the next 18 months in a pilot program called ChildSight, the eyes of 5,000 city middle schoolers will be tested, and an estimated 1,250 students will get free eyeglasses at school.

Two-year project

The Abell Foundation is providing $209,000 for the two-year JTC project, an established program of Helen Keller International (HKI), which has been termed successful in middle schools in New York City and Jersey City, N.J.

Perhaps a fourth of middle school children, ages 11 to 14, have developed vision problems, according to medical specialists, who found that puberty causes refractive (and correctable) error in eyesight to jump from 10 percent in elementary school pupils.

"Research has shown that the number of children who need glasses goes up dramatically in the middle school years, years in which Baltimore does not screen," said Robert C. Embry Jr., Abell Foundation president.

The city health department screens for hearing and vision once in prekindergarten, kindergarten or first grade, then again in fifth and ninth grades.

In April, the city health department will begin screening the 848 students at Lombard Middle School, 1601 E. Lombard St., and 1,600 students at West Baltimore Middle School, 201 North Bend Road. The tests are normal testing procedures using the Snellen chart, the standard eye chart.

Those needing eyeglasses will be given another appointment. An optometrist will go to the school with prescription lenses and frames of different strength and sizes.

On that day, before they leave school, students will receive eyeglasses to correct their vision. The glasses cost about $10 each but are free to the children.

The "instant eyeglasses" to be used were invented by Robert J. Morrison, a multimillionaire optometrist who founded Morrison International of Sarasota, Fla., to market low-cost glasses for the poor.

'High rate of need'

"The program is quite compelling," said Carol Beck, Abell program manager. "You're zeroing in on an age group in a massive screening of people showing a high rate of need and giving them glasses free on the spot. It solves the follow-up problem."

A key concern has been follow-up.

Even when eye problems were discovered, recent city health department records show that only 7.5 percent of children failing a visual screening received the services recommended.

Studies in Baltimore have cited such reasons as the extra cost for poverty-level families, inability of parents to read notices, lack of parental attention because of substance abuse or other factors.

Beck said students of at least four other city middle schools will be tested and given glasses as needed during the 1997-1998 school year.

If the program is continued, the remaining sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders in public schools would be screened and, if they qualify, given eyeglasses in future years.

Beck said officials hope a continuation can be financed in part by medical insurance reimbursements and a possible reordering of the city health department screening schedule.

A coordinator will be hired in the Baltimore program to work with the Helen Keller project director and the medical director.

Parent volunteers will be recruited to help with screening. An optometrist will be hired to go to schools.

Keller, the blind and deaf crusader for the blind, and other Americans founded HKI in 1915 to fight and treat preventable blindness throughout the world.

The organization said it has supported programs in more than 80 countries to fight cataracts and trachoma, the two leading causes of blindness; nutritional blindness striking 500,000 children a year; and river blindness, a parasitic disease affecting millions.

Pub Date: 2/11/97

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