Corrine Kroger, Iowa Regional Director, Vision to Learn
Often times rural communities have limited resources, programs and services that address social needs. They are typically more focused on direct service and do not have the capacity to take a step back and assess opportunities for systems change. However, Jackson County residents, business leaders and service providers were eager to roll their sleeves up and get to work on helping the young people in their community succeed.
In April 2014, the Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque was awarded an Anonymous Donor grant to expand the work of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to Jackson County and Dyersville. Jackson County, comprised of approximately 19,720 residents, has 15.6% of its population living in poverty and approximately 76% of the county’s third graders reading at grade level. There was a need for the community to gather around this type of work, and through a partnership with the Community Foundation of Jackson County, we were successful in launching the Campaign in January 2015.
Launching a Campaign in a county rather than a single community brought along some challenges. We realized early-on that it was important to maintain each community’s identity when looking at data, needs and identifying priorities. The county consists of four public school districts and two parochial schools and because of this, we spent a lot of time during the first year building relationships, raising awareness and identifying opportunities to collaborate.
As we all know systems change takes time, so keeping our communities engaged, stakeholders informed and residents excited about this work was critical at the beginning. Ensuring that we had the right data to inform our work was an important piece of our plan and developing a strategy.
Awareness building and consistent communications helped us to keep our momentum as we worked on projects. As we launched our Campaign we jumped right in with social media and developed a regular monthly newsletter that is now distributed to residents, business leaders, local government officials, donors and key stakeholders.
While we focused on the big picture and systems change, we also tackled those projects that are considered to be the “lowest hanging fruit.” During year one, committee members came together and worked on attendance awareness strategies, family literacy events, Little Free Libraries, and back to school events, among others. As we take off into year two we will take a deeper dive into strategy that addresses gaps in services and improved parent engagement.
Collaborating outside of the Network is also vital for rural communities for reasons previously mentioned. The Dubuque Campaign worked closely with the Community Foundation of Jackson County and the Jackson County Campaign for Grade-Level Reading to bring Vision to Learn to Iowa – because meeting children’s basic needs help them arrive at school ready to learn.
In 2016, the Community Foundation partnered with Vision To Learn to pilot a mobile vision clinic aimed at improving kids’ vision to help them succeed in school. The pilot program included eight Title I schools – five in Dubuque and three in Jackson County. Students were identified as needing an exam based on fall school vision screenings.
How did we get here? Just like launching a Campaign, we began to ask questions about what communities were doing to ensure that students had the proper vision care they needed to succeed in school. We had conversations with school nurses to learn about the vision screening process and learned that in Iowa, schools are required to conduct vision screenings for incoming kindergarteners and third graders. For many rural districts, there is a lack of capacity to complete all of the vision screenings necessary. There is not currently a mandate for vision exams if a child is identified as needing follow-up care from their school screening.
After conversations with the Optometric community, we learned that a child’s eyes change often during early developmental stages and throughout puberty. The fact that we were only screening students in kindergarten and third grade did not seem like enough to catch possible vision problems that may exist. That aside, what happens to those students once they fail a vision screening? Through our research we learned that approximately two thirds of the students who failed their vision screening and are referred for a vision exam, never actually followed up with a doctor.
In an effort to ensure that more students were getting to the doctor, we had discussions with local eyecare professionals and healthcare providers to determine if there were local solutions within our community. At the same time we discovered a program model that was having great success on the west coast.
Vision To Learn, a nonprofit that overcomes barriers such as access and cost, was bringing a mobile clinic to low-income schools and providing eyes exams and glasses for free. Research by the University of California Los Angeles Mattel Children’s Hospital shows that Vision To Learn has a direct impact on education outcomes for children supported by the program and improves the learning environment for the entire classroom and school. We know that if a child cannot see, they cannot read and if they cannot read they are less likely to graduate high school.
After several conversations and local fund raising we were able to launch our pilot program in January of 2016. The results:
- 178 students were examined by Vision To Learn optometrists
- 90 students received prescriptions for glasses and each received two free pairs – one to keep at school and one to keep at home
- 16 students were referred on for further vision care
Many of the students identified as needing glasses had extremely high prescriptions, which is often an indication of a long-undetected vision problem. Additionally, we found that a significant number of students had been prescribed glasses at a young age and were still wearing the same prescription as many as four years later.
Our pilot has allowed us to identify the varying landscape that a rural community brings compared to a larger metropolitan area. We know that rural communities are most likely to benefit from this type of service due to barriers such as transportation, access to eye care specialists and poor economic conditions. As we continue to partner with VTL for the 2016-2017 school year we will continue to identify barriers, build relationships with Medicaid Managed Care Organizations in the state of Iowa, and facilitate conversations with the key stakeholders about access to healthcare services.
We know and understand that one barrier that impacts whether a child receives vision care is lack of priority or awareness. During the pilot program, parents were asked to sign a consent form prior to their child participating in the mobile vision program. For those schools with limited staff time, many students were left out of the program due to a lack of parental consent forms being returned and the inability for school staff to follow-up with families.
During the 2016-2017 program, schools will collaborate with Grade-Level Reading partners on outreach techniques and parent engagement strategies that will not only raise the awareness around good vision health, but also to ensure that proper consents are received in order for students to participate in the mobile vision program. Additionally, each of the School Districts will provide families with information about signs and symptoms of a potential vision problem and the importance of visiting an eye care specialist annually.
We are excited about the expansion for the upcoming school and look forward to partnering with communities throughout the State of Iowa. Learn more about Vision To Learn here. To learn more about the Iowa program please contact Corrine Kroger, Iowa Regional Director, at Corrine@visiontolearn.org.