By Governor Jack Markell and Senator Chris Coons
It’s hard to learn when you can’t read the chalkboard.
Yet for more than 6,000 of Delaware’s students, the biggest challenge they face isn’t just solving a math problem, but also seeing it.
The good news is we have a path forward. The organization Vision To Learn found that one of the best ways to help our students succeed is also one of the easiest: Give them glasses. Over the past few years, it has steadily expanded throughout California – with great results – and this week we helped the organization launch in Delaware.
Vision To Learn’s mission revolves around a few startling facts. First, 80 percent of learning is obtained visually. Second, most first-graders with impaired vision begin their school year without glasses. And third, 60 percent of America’s students who need vision care end up being labeled “trouble learners.” So not only do students need to see to learn, a huge proportion of students who have trouble seeing also don’t get the glasses they need. As a result, they fall further behind in school.
A majority of these students are lower-income and minorities. They often lack the resources or time to visit an eye doctor. Even when Medicaid would cover their eye exams and glasses, they often don’t get the help they need because of other challenges they and their families face, like transportation and language barriers.
When Austin Beutner, a civic and business leader in Los Angeles, heard about the problem, he decided to found the nonprofit Vision To Learn. Its work began in 2012 in Los Angeles, where teams of professionals visited schools in trucks fully equipped to conduct eye exams. Each day, teams would work with kids to test their vision and help them pick out frames.
Two weeks later, students’ new glasses would arrive at school, free of charge. For many, these were the first set of specs they had ever owned. To help make wearing glasses cool, Vision To Learn partnered with professional athletes and the Los Angeles Dodgers, which sponsored “Dodger blue” frames.
The results were promising. After its first year, UCLA researchers conducted a study and found the program improved students’ lives both in and out of the classroom. Math scores improved and students reported new levels of confidence and self-esteem.
These findings shouldn’t surprise any of us. School is hard enough as it is – can you imagine trying to focus or sit still in class if you can’t confidently follow what’s on the board in front of you or in the book on your desk? From the ability to absorb material to the confidence to participate in class, it’s easy to imagine how profound a difference glasses can make in a student’s life.
After Vision To Learn’s successful first year in Los Angeles, we are thrilled to support its expansion into Delaware, where it has a mission to provide more than 6,000 young Delawareans with the glasses they need. Vision To Learn in Delaware is a true public-private partnership that will use both private donations from nonprofits like VisionWorks, as well as from partners in the business community, like AstraZeneca, Barclays Bank, and Highmark Foundation, among many others.
State leaders will help coordinate the initiative to ensure students who are eligible can get their exams and glasses covered by Medicaid. We’re proud the organization’s first statewide launch is in the First State, and we hope it will serve as a model for the nation. Our ability to recognize a great program and come together in less than a year to make it a reality is a great example of the Delaware Way.
Vision To Learn’s growth and success serve as a lesson in how the private sector and government at every level can work together to solve some of our toughest challenges. It started small, studied its results and worked to expand. Now, by partnering with the government, it can scale up its model and effect significant change. It’s a hopeful example of what social entrepreneurship can achieve with the right partners and the right resources.
Now, for only $90 per student, and no additional taxpayer resources, we can ensure that nobody gets left behind for the simple reason that they can’t see. It’s an investment in our future that’s well worth making, and we’re thrilled to make it in Delaware.
Jack Markell is Delaware’s governor, and Chris Coons is a U.S. senator.