FWISD and Alcon open on-campus vision center for low-income students

One in five students in the Fort Worth Independent School District failed a vision screening in 2021. Nearly half of those students in pre-K through fifth grade didn’t receive the needed follow-up eye care.

Instead of just connecting its students with outside providers, the North Texas school district decided to bring comprehensive eye care to campus with the establishment of the Alcon Children’s Vision Center.

The brightly painted vision center, officially launched in partnership with the Alcon Foundation on Monday, offers eye exams and prescription glasses to Medicaid-eligible students free of charge in an effort to close the gap in eye care for low-income families.

It’s a unique service about two years in the making, spurred by a longtime relationship between Fort Worth ISD and the Alcon Foundation, the charitable arm of ophthalmology company Alcon. When a trailer behind Western Hills Elementary School became vacant, Assistant Superintendent for student support services Michael Steinert proposed a plan for an on-site vision center.

“It’s something I didn’t know we could ever make possible, but it’s incredible it has worked so well. It’s one-of-a-kind in Texas public education,” Steinert said. “There is no other ISD in the state of Texas that has a vision center in its facilities.”

Proper vision screening and eye care can be critical for students’ educational success. One study from the University of California, Los Angeles found that 80% of classroom learning is visual and that up to 90% of vision problems identified in students can be corrected with glasses.

An eye exam room at the Alcon Children's Vision Center in Fort Worth, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023....
An eye exam room at the Alcon Children’s Vision Center in Fort Worth, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023. The center is a first-of-its-kind partnership between the Alcon Foundation and Fort Worth ISD to provide eye care for students in pre-K through twelfth grade.(Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

If student vision problems go unaddressed, the impact can bleed outside of the classroom, said Jenny Terrell, co-director of the Community Eye Clinic in Fort Worth and clinical associate professor at the University of the Incarnate Word Rosenberg School of Optometry in San Antonio.

“It’s very impactful to a child’s academic career and socially, as well. If they have trouble seeing and then they do poorly, other kids sometimes tease them,” Terrell said. “Then it can turn into behavior problems. There’s all sorts of ways that that can have a ripple effect negatively for those kids.”

Not every child in Fort Worth ISD will step into the vision center. Most will interact with the center’s providers at school during routine vision screenings, which check to see how well a student sees and whether they’re using both eyes equally.

If a student fails that screening, then they are recommended for a comprehensive eye exam. On Fridays, the vision center’s staff of three optometrists, two technicians and one optician perform detailed eye exams and get students fitted for glasses free of charge.

During an eye exam, optometrists check not only a person’s vision, but also their color vision, whether they need a prescription and how well they can focus their eyes. If a student at the vision center needs glasses, they get to pick from a wall of colorful frames that mirror the orange, blue and purple mural painted on the outside of the trailer.

The center specially targets low-income students because “those are the ones who are falling through the cracks,” said Rick Weisbarth, head of Alcon’s U.S. professional affairs and member of the Alcon Foundation Board. “What we were doing previously was conducting screenings, but then there was nowhere for the students to get those comprehensive exams.”

A room where children can pick out their glasses after eye exams at the Alcon Children's...
A room where children can pick out their glasses after eye exams at the Alcon Children’s Vision Center in Fort Worth, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.(Elías Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

While the vision center had its grand opening Monday, the staff started seeing patients in the physical exam space in August after a yearlong pilot program in Fort Worth ISD schools. The center will expand on the 35,000 free vision screenings in 2021 and 2022. It will also provide continuous eye care for students through graduation.

“By providing this comprehensive care to these students, we truly expect that what we’re going to see is an increase in student performance,” Weisbarth said. “We’re…

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