We know that eyeglasses can improve vision, but can they also improve learning? The answer is a resounding “yes” according to the largest study to date on school-based vision programs in the United States. The study, published in JAMA Ophthalmology in 2021, found that children who received free eye exams and eyeglasses as part of a school-based vision program improved their academic performance after one year. NYU Langone Health was ahead of the curve when, in June 2018, it launched a dedicated vision care center at PS 188 in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, the first of its kind in New York State.
PS 188, serving children from prekindergarten to the 5th grade, is 1 of 61 public schools throughout New York City that have a school-based health center sponsored by the School Health Program—Family Health Centers at NYU Langone, which provides free comprehensive healthcare to public school students in underserved communities. Located at the end of Coney Island, a long distance by public transportation from any vision services, the school was an ideal candidate for the pilot program, a partnership between NYU Langone, the United Federation of Teachers, and New York City’s Departments of Education and Health and Mental Hygiene.
The vision center at PS 188 complements pediatric primary care services with comprehensive eye care. While all of the school-based health centers provide general vision screening performed by a nurse practitioner, the one at PS 188 is unique in that it was conceived to provide two additional on-site resources: an optometrist who writes prescriptions for corrective lenses and a selection of eyeglass frames. An NYU Langone optometrist can diagnose conditions like refractive error—such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism (blurry or double vision)—and amblyopia (lazy eye), and prescribes eyeglasses or other visual aids. In its initial year of operation, the vision center provided prescription eyeglasses to nearly half of the 314 children who received routine eye exams, at no cost to their families. Those who require further testing or treatment are referred to NYU Langone’s extensive network of specialists, including those at the NYU Langone Eye Center, which has locations in Brooklyn.
An estimated 40 percent of children in the United States need eyeglasses, and many kids with learning disabilities have vision problems, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. At PS 188, “the vast majority of the students who needed glasses did not know they needed them,” notes Larry K. McReynolds, executive director of the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone. “In many low-income communities, there isn’t even an ophthalmologist or optometrist who accepts Medicaid, so there’s no access to an eye exam.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced students into an extended period of remote learning, children had their vision placed at even higher risk. “There have been reports of worsening visual acuity due to spending most of the day in front of a computer screen,” says Paulo R. Pina, MD, MPH, pediatric medical director of the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone. “We brought vision screening back to PS 188 when it reopened in September 2021, but now we need to check these students to see if there were any changes to their visual acuity.”
For the first three years, the vision center was funded by a private foundation that covered the cost of equipment, operational support, and eyewear. NYU Langone is currently seeking new partners for philanthropic support and retail eyewear. Meanwhile, students who need eyeglasses are given a prescription for their parents to fill at a retail shop. Dr. McReynolds looks forward to the day when the vision center will not only return to its full range of services, but expand into neighboring schools. “We are committed to this program,” he says, “and it will survive.”