Baltimore City Announces New Citywide Initiative to Provide Free Universal Vision Screening and Glasses to Students


BALTIMORE, MD (May 10, 2016)– The Baltimore City Health Department (BCHD), the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), Johns Hopkins University (JHU), non-profit provider Vision To Learn (VTL), and Warby Parker today launched “Vision for Baltimore,” an innovative citywide strategy to ensure that students across Baltimore City elementary and middle schools have universal access to glasses, an essential learning tool, in an effort to improve performance, engagement, and opportunity.

Vision for Baltimore is a core component of the BCHD’s Youth Health and Wellness Strategy, a comprehensive 5-year plan to reduce economic, social, and racial disparities among Baltimore City’s children and youth.

“Far too many young people across Baltimore lack access to quality vision care. As a City we have to not only build better schools, but also ensure our students have everything they need to be successful in school and in life,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “This project is a testament to the transformative power of public–private partnerships and will make a real difference for children in communities across our city.”

Currently, the Baltimore City Health Department performs vision screenings, as mandated by Maryland law, for pre-kindergarten, first grade, and eighth grade students. While BCHD’s staff provides 22,000 vision screenings annually, Baltimore City Public School System currently serves over 62,500 students between pre-kindergarten and eighth grade. The Baltimore City Health Department and Johns Hopkins University estimate that as many as 10,000 of these students need glasses.

In addition to the lack of screenings amongst these students, those who fail vision screenings under the existing system are then referred to obtain an offsite eye exam. Significant barriers often prevent students from getting this follow-up care, including: inadequate transportation, lack of awareness of uncorrected vision, cost, and parents' inability to take time off from work to take their children for an eye exam.

Through Vision for Baltimore, BCHD, in partnership with VTL, JHU, BCPSS, and Warby Parker will remove the greatest barriers to service through the following:

  • BCHD will provide vision screening for every student between pre-kindergarten and eighth grade in schools;
  • Students who fail a vision screening will be seen by VTL, whose trained eye care professionals will provide eye exams and glasses to students. VTL’s mobile clinics will visit schools in Baltimore to provide these services;
  • VTL will dispense glasses to all students in need at school during the school day;
  • Students in need of additional care – including case management - will be referred to further treatment by BCHD; and
  • JHU will evaluate the effectiveness of the program and its potential to inform public school practices and national education policy.

All of these services will be provided through Vision for Baltimore regardless of the family’s ability to pay.

“It is common sense that if students cannot see the board, they will struggle to learn,” said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. “Public health is about going to where people are to deliver critical services and provide care. Vision for Baltimore is about providing every child glasses who needs it, regardless of ability to pay, so that we can eliminate barriers to learning, level the playing ground of inequality, and set up all of our children for success.”

Since 2012, Vision To Learn has provided children with over 53,000 eye exams and 40,000 with glasses, all free of charge, in low income communities throughout California, Delaware, Hawaii and Iowa. The project in Baltimore will be Vision To Learn's largest operation on the East Coast to date.

“We are excited to work with the City of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins University to bring our services to kids in Baltimore. The glasses these kids receive will help them succeed in school and in life,” said Vision To Learn Founder and Chairman, Austin Beutner.

A Johns Hopkins research team, led by Dr. Robert Slavin from the School of Education and Dr. Megan Collins, Dr. David Friedman and Dr. Michael Repka from the Wilmer Eye Institute, are collaborating with BCHD, BCPS and VTL to evaluate the program and study its impact on academic performance. Their existing research with Baltimore elementary schools through the Baltimore Reading and Eye Disease Study found that among second and third graders, giving students glasses caused them to significantly increase their reading performance. The researchers hypothesize that in-school vision screenings, and the provision of appropriate treatment and follow-up to ensure that eyeglasses are worn every day, will improve reading proficiency for many students, particularly those from underprivileged communities in Baltimore.

“This public-private partnership is an unprecedented effort that will have a profound effect on the learning outcomes in our city’s schools,” said Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels. “An evaluation of this effort by Johns Hopkins will be critical and may help to shift the approach of school systems across this country.”

The initial years of Vision for Baltimore will be funded thanks to support from the Abell Foundation, the Anne E. Casey Foundation, the Hackerman Family, the Aaron and Lillie Straus Foundation, Congressman John K. Delaney, April McClain-Delaney and the CapitalSource Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. The program projects to be completely sustainable after the third year.

“We are thrilled to lend our support to a program that will improve the well-being of thousands of Baltimore school children. Today marks the first step to providing glasses to students in need throughout Maryland," said Congressman John K. Delaney. Glasses for the program will be donated by partner Warby Parker. The NYC-based tech-enabled lifestyle brand has committed to providing two pairs of glasses to approximately 2,750 Baltimore City School students between pre-kindergarten and eighth grade throughout the 2016 - 2017 academic year.

“We believe glasses have an immediate and positive impact on a person’s life. When you can see, you learn and succeed,” said Warby Parker co-Founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal. “Since 2010, we’ve been committed to building a business designed to solve problems, actively addressing the lack of access to glasses through our distribution model abroad and, most recently, in our backyard in New York City. Today, we’re excited to partner with Vision for Baltimore to give students the glasses they need to excel in school because we believe everyone has the right to see.”

Over the next year, Vision for Baltimore will operate in 50 schools across Baltimore City. The program will serve all public schools over the next three years and continue to rotate throughout schools thereafter.

Hampstead Hill Academy is currently serving as a pilot for the program announced today. As a result, over 160 of the school’s 742 students will receive glasses this week.

“Vision for Baltimore is a perfect example of how City Schools, Baltimore City, and our partners in the private, academic, and philanthropic communities are working together to meet the needs of our students,” said Baltimore City School Interim CEO Tammy Turner. “Such widespread support is tangible evidence of how our joint commitment to the children of Baltimore can remove practical obstacles that stand in the way of their success.”

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