By Haley Barbour and Gayle Wicker
Mississippi is the proud birthplace of many American literary giants from William Faulkner and Eudora Welty to Natasha Trethewey. The state’s public schools are helping nurture the next generation of great minds. Every morning when students go to school, they carry important supplies in their backpack – books, pencils, notepads. But, unfortunately, as many as 50,000 children in Mississippi go to school without something simple that is critical to their success– a pair of glasses.
Vision To Learn, founded by Austin Beutner, was created to solve this issue. It recently launched efforts to serve children in the Jackson Public School District with plans to serve the school-age population throughout Mississippi in the months and years to come. The nonprofit organization operates mobile vision clinics that serve young people at schools and community organizations and provides eye exams and glasses, free of charge. Students choose their glasses from a wide selection of colors, sizes, and styles. Every student who needs glasses gets them.
The benefits of good vision are profound. Research shows that after receiving glasses from Vision To Learn, students’ math and reading grades increase, their classroom behavior improves, and they are better able to focus on class discussion and assignments. The program helps not only the students receiving glasses but the entire school as it is easier for teachers to teach and for the whole class to learn.
Uncorrected vision issues can make schoolwork difficult, causing pupils to fall behind in reading and math, and can affect classroom behavior. A kindergartener with vision issues is often misdiagnosed as a behavior problem. By 4th grade this same child is mislabeled a slow learner or considered a “problem child,” falls behind, and receives nothing but negative feedback. By 8th grade, they drop out to look for reward on the street. Equally troubling are several studies showing over 60 percent of youth in juvenile detention centers have uncorrected vision issues.
Vision To Learn is a public-private partnership that works. Government, philanthropy and the private sector all worked together to launch the program in Mississippi. Vision screening efforts are being expanded so every child in public school can be helped. School leaders worked to educate students and parents about the program. Financial support for this effort has come from many individuals and organizations including Jim and Donna Barksdale, Ambassador John Palmer and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Much has been written about poverty in America. But what if you learned one in five kids in public schools lack the glasses they need to see the board, read a book, or participate in class? What chance does that child have to succeed in school, let alone break free from poverty? Providing kids with glasses will help them succeed in school and in life.
Haley Barbour was governor of Mississippi from 2004 to 2012 and Gayle Wicker is the Mississippi Director of Vision to Learn.