Four-year-old Matthew Brown stares into the screen of the Welch Allyn Spot Vision Screener held by Austin Downtown Founder Lions Club volunteer Rudy Munguia. Matthew can see flashing lights, but, of course, Munguia makes it fun and tells him to look for the little bird. Does he see it?
This technique gets pre-kindergarten kids to really stare with their eyes open at the screener looking for a bird that isn’t there. The screener, though, is taking six different measurements of Matthew’s eyes. Within a few seconds, the machine is able to determine if Matthew has a vision problem and measure whether he is near-sighted, far-sighted or has an astigmatism, and how strong his eyes are. It screens for seven different conditions.
The kids in Matthew’s pre-kindergarten class at Widén Elementary School have all had their vision tested as part of a collaboration between Austin Independent School District and the Downtown Founder Lions Club.
The club screened pre-kindergartners in 32 schools last school year and will do 29 schools this school year. Kids in first, third and fifth grades receive regular vision screening using the eye chart you’re used to seeing.
With the screener, which doesn’t require kids to know their letters, younger kids can be tested in the hope that they will receive early intervention sooner. That will help them academically as they begin reading. Kids also can’t just memorize the letter sequence of the children who went before them. It also takes about 3 seconds to run the test using the Welch Allyn Spot Vision Screener. The traditional screen takes five to 10 minutes a kid.
Of the 12 pre-kindergarten kids screened in the afternoon at Widén, five were labeled as “bingos,” the word the Lions use to indicate the test found something wrong. They don’t want kids to feel like they “failed.” In the morning pre-kindergarten class, 10 students were screened and three had bingos.
In the schools last year about 20 percent of the kids screened, got a “bingo.” The club tells parents in the letter they receive that the test is 85 percent to 90 percent accurate, but Lions screening at Widén say they’ve seen it be as much as 94 percent accurate.
Sometimes, if an older student hasn’t been screened and the school suspects something is going on with his vision, the Lions will screen him as well. They also offer the school staff a free screening.
Last school year, the club screened 2,401 kids in schools and referred 485 kids to get additional screening from an eye care professional.
Sometimes, though, families can’t afford that next step, which is tough. Even with insurance, the out-of-pocket expense for eye care can be beyond what families can afford, says Widén principal Jennifer Pace. It does help the school identify kids who will need help. “I think it’s a real plus,” Pace says.
Sometimes the club takes the family under their wing and will pay for the eye care and glasses.
The screeners, which cost about $7,800 each, also are used by the club’s community outreach at events such as Coats for Kids and can be used in children as young as 6 months old. The club has a recreational vehicle, which it brings to community events for the screening. In those events, which screen all ages, about 30 percent of the people screened get a bingo.
One of the things that’s exciting about screening kids before they get to first grade is that some of the eye conditions are reversible if they are caught early, says club president Leonor Marques.