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Campus opticians to provide free vision screening for primary-school students

| 10 September 2003


An elementary-school student takes the Mr. Happy test. He is wearing special glasses in order to be tested for stereovision.
UC Berkeley School of Optometry photo

This fall, several white vans, each loaded with two professors, four graduate students, and crates of equipment, will begin rolling out of the School of Optometry on their way to elementary schools in the city of Berkeley, to begin a sweeping vision screening of the district’s children — including all kindergarteners, second-graders, and fifth-graders.

The screening — by clinicians who have helped set the national “standard of care” — usually costs $3.50 per student. For Berkeley schools, it is being offered at no cost.

The free service is made possible by a three-way agreement with UC Berkeley, the Berkeley Unified School District, and the city of Berkeley, funded by a new program that benefits Berkeley city employees as well. Currently, city employees do not have vision coverage in their health-insurance plan. The campus has agreed to offer city employees its 20/20 discount eye-examination plan, which is now available through the School of Optometry’s Eye Center for retired faculty and staff. Funds from the city contract will support the school screening program.

It is a plan that benefits all parties: the UC student-clinician who has an opportunity to hone skills under the watchful eye of a professor, the city employee who receives a 20-percent discount on a full eye exam, and, most critically, the second-grader who can’t see the blackboard.

The vision program was proposed last spring when city, campus, and school-district staff met to discuss the impacts of their shrinking budgets. The joint budget workshop was facilitated by the Berkeley Alliance, a nonprofit that brings together the three entities to address community needs and common problems. At the workshop, staff representatives generated new ideas on sharing resources to save scarce dollars and maintain services. Workshop participants are also looking at collaborations in operational areas, from purchasing office supplies to transportation to sharing public facilities. But the vision screening program was chosen as the first joint project, one that will not only save money but also improve services for children.

“State law requires that every schoolchild be screened for vision problems every two years,” explains Ed Revelli, associate dean for clinical affairs at the School of Optometry. “But few districts have the money to do that.” Many districts use a school nurse or even volunteers to comply with the law. But, Revelli points out, those screenings often miss basic problems: “For instance, they will pick up near-sighted kids, but the majority of children with problems are far-sighted.”

The highest-risk children, and the ones who will be screened in Berkeley this fall, are the youngest. “Little kids often don’t know they have problems,” says Revelli. “They think everyone sees the way they do — blurry and out of focus. That’s just the way they’ve seen since birth.”

It is important to screen fifth-graders because, at around age 9, some children’s eyes develop anomalies; children older than 10 are usually able to speak up if their vision changes for the worse.

In addition to the younger children and fifth-graders, Berkeley optometrists will check students in Special Education programs and others referred by their teachers. They expect to find some sort of vision problem in approximately 12 percent of the children tested.

UC Berkeley has been a leader in determining the standards for school screening since the early 1950s. Currently the school has a National Eye Institute grant to reassess the standards. The School of Optometry, the number-one-ranked optometric teaching institution in the United States, is a four-year graduate program.

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