By Wilborn P. Nobles III, Nola.com
Over the last decade, the Health and Education Alliance of Louisiana, also known as HEAL, has supported schools in New Orleans by providing vision and hearing screenings as well as mental health counseling and expertise in preventative health care for students in need. The program hopes to expand its reach in August.
The bulk of HEAL’s work involves screenings to help schools identify students who may be struggling academically because they need a hearing aid or glasses. Up to this point, most of that work has been done in New Orleans and Tangipahoa Parish.
HEAL is now being funded by the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana Foundation, which recently announced a $300,000 grant to fund the program’s expansion. The program aims to expand in-school screenings locally and across Louisiana over the next three years.
Constance Bellone, HEAL’s CEO, said nearly half of 4th and 8th graders failed their vision screening when the organization first started testing children 10 years ago.
“They didn’t need textbooks and computers, they needed eyeglasses,” Bellone said, noting the need for screenings remains high.
Medical experts say health-related issues are among the most common barriers to learning for children. But research from the national Children’s Health Fund indicates only about two-thirds of children nationwide had their vision tested within the timeframe set by clinical guidelines. About 18 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds have impaired vision because of an uncorrected vision problem.
HEAL and Bellone say their results show a strong correlation between vision screenings and academic improvement. Starting in 2014, the group tracked results among 6,000 students at four New Orleans charter schools over a three-year period. The study found vision screening failures dropped from 48 percent to 17 percent after the program implemented annual screenings at the schools. In addition, grade point averages went up between 25 and 60 percent in schools where HEAL operated.
Up to this point, the program has screened 45,000 children at 40 schools statewide. Bellone said HEAL is currently working with the ARISE Schools charter organization to provide services at ARISE Academy in the St. Claude area and Mildred Osborne Charter School in New Orleans East.
HEAL’s small staff typically works with three to four schools at a time. Its program runs about three or four years in each school, Bellone said. In the program’s first year, HEAL employees work with parents and school staff to provide health care expertise. The nonprofit then trains school employees on screening program best practices for the remainder of the program. The nonprofit’s goal is for a school to be able to provide the program on their own by the time HEAL’s three-year stay is over.
Moving forward, Bellone said the nonprofit plans to work with up to four New Orleans schools at a time. They’re currently in talks with the Orleans Parish School Board to have the school district provide 50 percent of the funding to schools that want to continue the program on their own. Schools would have to come up with the other half. Medicaid dollars are also available to reimburse schools that are providing screenings to children who qualify. Bellone noted hearing and vision screenings received in school do not count toward the personal healthcare benefits of students.
Part of HEAL’s work will focus on ensuring schools have plans in place to access that funding. The Louisiana Department of Education also provides school districts a handbook to help schools implement health service programs through Medicaid.
Blue Cross Foundation president Michael Tipton said he hopes his organization’s donation will spur will addition investment in children’s health care initiatives citywide.
Educators can only do so much on their own, but basic health care is a vital support, Bellone added.
“It’s our job as health care providers to work collaboratively with them to take care of these kids in school,” she said.