Emmett Knight is an “A” student in almost every subject, according to his grandpa. Except for one — reading.
Since his grandpa began taking care of him last year, the Riley Elementary second grader had been struggling with the subject at school and at home.
“He told us, ‘I can’t see those letters,’” his grandpa, Terry Knight, said. “So we thought maybe that was the biggest problem.”
Emmett eventually came home with a letter referring him to the Salt Lake City School District’s new vision clinic, located at Parkview Elementary. As it turned out, Emmett was diagnosed with an eye infection. With his grandpa by his side at his eye exam this month, he also got to pick out a pair of new black, thick-framed rectangular glasses.
Since April, the clinic has been offering vision services to Salt Lake City students and their families. Care is free to those who qualify, but the clinic also accepts some kinds of insurance.
“Our families don’t always have equal access to health care and support, and they don’t always have the ability to navigate the health care system,” said Parkview principal Justin Milner. The clinic’s goal, he said, is “to eliminate one barrier to health care access.”
The school district collaborated to create the new clinic with Rocky Mountain University and nonprofit Friends for Sight. It held its ribbon cutting in August.
The district has long hosted routine vision screenings on school campuses. Screenings can alert parents to a problem, but unlike complete eye examinations offered at the Parkview clinic, kids don’t leave them with new glasses.
Across district schools, about 35-40% students on average “pretty reliably” fail vision screenings, recalled Milner, who previously worked at the district level. The district also offers vision services at two of its Community Learning Centers — Glendale-Mountain View and Liberty — but the Parkview clinic has more extensive optometry equipment.
“We’re excited because we are now able to provide, at no cost, eyeglasses and exams for our students,” said James Yapias, director of the Salt Lake Education Foundation. “We want our kids to be able to read, to be able to not worry about this part of their educational component.”
‘Most of them have never seen an eye doctor’
Since opening, the clinic has only provided services once a week on Fridays. Between April and October alone, it served about 90 patients, amounting to about $7,000 in care, according to Rocky Mountain University.
The goal is to eventually serve thousands more Salt Lake City students in the next three to five years, said Jamie Justice, executive director of Friends for Sight.
“I don’t know if we’re going to get there, but we’ve got to build our capacity,” she said, adding that Parkview’s clinic will still likely serve as a hub, since that’s where the Rocky Mountain University partnership is centered.
Students can be referred to the Parkview clinic if they fail their vision screenings. The clinic has already helped Emmett and parents like Leidi Valderrama Hernandez, who recently brought in her son, Hendrick Galeana Valderrama, a fifth grader at Edison Elementary.
“When the teacher would write on the board, I couldn’t read that,” the boy said in Spanish, according to Yándary Chatwin, a district spokesperson who translated his words. “The writing was too small and I’d have to get help from my classmates because I couldn’t see.”
After a vision screening at school, he was referred to the Parkview clinic — about a year after his family moved to the U.S. from Mexico under political asylum. “For us, getting insurance is just not feasible economically,” his mother said in Spanish.
Most kids who come to the clinic have never seen an eye doctor before. That’s why its impact has already been “enormous,” Justice said. Across the state, about 70% of students who need eye exams are not getting them, she said.
“It’s pretty incredible when they put their glasses on for the first time,” Justice said. “They can interact with the classroom, they can learn … it’s a whole new world.”
‘We just needed to help them visually’
The relatively new clinic has captured the interest of other school districts, according to Dr. Court Wilkins, the assistant dean of clinical affairs at Rocky Mountain University’s College of Optometry. So far, Nebo School District as well as Davis and Sanpete counties have approached him about getting their students vision services.
Wilkins offers his time at the Parkview clinic pro bono, conducting eye exams alongside a handful of Rocky Mountain University’s optometry students — even some first years.
He first started doing pro bono work while active duty in the Air Force, he said, working with schools and identifying students who needed vision services. Many of his patients would tell him they were “labeled” as disruptive.
“We just needed to help them visually,” he said. “It was just really sad to see that, and so whatever I can do to help, I’m just happy to help.”
In Salt Lake City, the next goal is to expand the amount of days the Parkview clinic is open, shifting from one day a week to three. Once more doctors, technicians and staff are added, the clinic aims to see “hundreds more” students within the next year, Justice said.
“There are so many people that we need to help, not only students, but also family members that just don’t have the resources to get the care that they need,” he said.
At Parkview, Milner has already noticed the difference. The vision screenings would flag a problem, but referring students to outside services proved “cumbersome.”
“Now teachers go into a situation, they present that they have a concern about vision needs for the student, and by the end of the month, it’s resolved,” he said. “Teachers are confident to say, ‘I have a student with vision needs and I don’t feel like I’m going to hit a dead end.’”
For more information on the clinic, visit: https://friendsforsight.org/programs.