Some children in Houston area get free eye exams, glasses

HOUSTON (AP) — Chaise Perry can't quite see the words in his favorite "Pete the Cat" books, or those on the whiteboard at the front of his Francone Elementary School classroom.

The Houston Chronicle reports the second-grader tried squinting. He sat on the floor, in front of his classmates' desks. Neither worked.

Then, late last year, his teacher devised a simple solution: "She told me they were gonna give me glasses," Chaise recalled.

On Wednesday, he grabbed at hologram wasps to gauge his depth perception. At a free eye-testing clinic at the Richard E. Berry Educational Support Center in Cypress, Chaise traced rainbow-colored hexograms to test for colorblindness. And, with his eyes peering through a clunky, metal phoropter, he read aloud jumbled sequences of letters — "HKNTO" or "LNZUP" — occasionally confusing Ps for Rs, and vice versa.

But soon, a pair of bright, red glasses will arrive for him, and he'll sit in his usual assigned seat and no longer squint.

There are likely millions more like Chase. As many as 20 percent of America's 50 million or so elementary and secondary school students have untreated vision problems, according to University of California-Los Angeles health researchers, of which roughly 80 percent could be corrected with glasses.

The Houston Health Department estimates up to 20,000 area students start school each year with unresolved eye or vision issues — a problem so pervasive that, in 2011, the agency and its nonprofit wing, the Houston Health Foundation, began offering free, full eye exams to 10 school districts. Most of the roughly 50,000 students who have since been treated through the temporary, makeshift See to Succeed clinics come from low-income schools and households, where access to proper health care is fleeting and parents can't always take days off work for private eye doctor appointments, Health Department officials said.

"Some of these kids show up, and you wonder how they got through the door," said Bob Rugur, who spent Wednesday giving basic eye tests to about 400 Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District students.

Many more — about 12 percent — arrive at the clinics with chronic eye issues that would have at one time been easy to address but have, after years without treatment, worsened to the point of needing outside medical care.

Inward eye turn, astigmatism, nerve swelling, glaucoma — the program's optometrists have seen them all, to varying degrees. Particularly worrisome are the severe vision problems among the many young, low-income Hispanic or African-American students, who are genetically more susceptible to problems like glaucoma, said Veronica Mendez, a clinical teaching fellow at University of Houston's College of Optometry.

"These kids will often not have been able to see a doctor at all before," she said. "Children with low resources are often not being seen, and so the problems are able to progress."

An hour before a mobile autorefractor measured the myopia of Chaise Perry's eyes, Dayne Arceneaux, 9, peered over a table of frames, before picking out a blue-gray pair to be fit with durable, polycarbonate lenses.

He's in third grade and owns a pop-up book that shows how the dinosaurs died.

He likes the book and school more these days, having received his first pair of glasses last year through a Health Foundation clinic.

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"I couldn't always see the words," he said Wednesday. Then came the glasses, and with them better grades. Now, he wants to be a scientist, "because you get to do awesome stuff."

Dayne's changes in the classroom aren't irregular.

Through a data-sharing agreement with the Houston Independent School District, the Health Foundation was able to track the progress of its 2015 program participants in the year after they were treated. Among their findings were dramatic improvements in classroom scores and school attendance, and plummeting rates of disciplinary action.

All told, 80 percent of students saw grades improve. Of that group, 67 percent passed math after failing it the year before, the study found. Another 93 percent of those students received passing grades in reading or language arts, despite failing it a year earlier.

"It's very simple: Kids can't learn if they can't see," said Christiane Bernal, a former school nurse for Cy-Fair ISD. "And parents don't always have the money or resources to get their kids help."

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