ST. PETERSBURG — Joy cannot see the chalkboard. Sometimes she tells her teacher, but her teacher doesn't understand. Her desk is in the back of the classroom. She has to stay in her seat. She puts her head down. She wishes they were doing multiplication tables, which she can work on at her desk, close enough to see. She wishes she was outside, playing on the swings.
• • •
"If you're listening, touch your head."
It is Tuesday morning and Robert Ovalle, the new principal at Campbell Park Elementary, is addressing 36 children. Each failed their vision test in September. Letters went home with their parents. By December, none of them had glasses.
Joy Collins, 6, touched her head.
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Campbell Park Elementary is an F school. Last year, 16 percent of third-graders passed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in reading. Ninety percent of students live in poverty. Both of Joy's parents work. She loves them a lot. Her mother bought her a night light because she is afraid of the dark.
She had glasses, Joy says, but they broke.
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If Ovalle doesn't turn Campbell Park into a D school, or even a C like it was just two years ago, he will lose his job. He knew that coming in. Per state law, a school that earns an F two years in a row must choose from a handful of turnaround options, the least severe requiring the district to replace the principal and re-interview the school's staff.
Each school year, a team comes to Campbell Park to test students' vision. Sometimes they come at the beginning of the year, but often they come later. Students may not get their vision tested until March, after they've taken the FCAT.
Ovalle lobbied the district to test his students in September. When three dozen did not have the glasses they needed by December, he talked his friend at Future Optics into donating lenses. Then he talked the doctors at Eye Designs Vision, near the Tyrone Square Mall, into giving the students free exams and two pairs of frames.
"It's the same thing as a kid being hungry at school. He doesn't have a basic need, to see, and what can we do about it?" Ovalle says. "It's there. No point arguing or crying about it. What are we going to do about it?"
• • •
It was Joy's turn to have her vision checked. She'd been the first off the school bus at Eye Vision Designs, but she didn't run to the man dressed up as Santa Claus like some of the other children did. As the technician readied the equipment in the initial screening room, Joy said, "Santa is not real."
"Yeah," said Lindsey Norton, the optometric technician.
"He's just wearing a costume," Joy said. "He couldn't deliver all those presents in one night."
Joy, who cannot see the board in her first-grade classroom, says she did not ask for anything for Christmas this year. She does not believe in magic.
• • •
Meegan Panapolis, a district literacy coach, sat on the floor in the waiting area as the children played reading and math games on iPads. Some of the children's noses were inches from the screen. Sometimes, when she is assessing students' reading, they'll sound out letters that aren't there.
"If they can't see, they can't read."
• • •
Joy hugged her best friend before she walked into the examination room. Nervously, she took the chair.
"Joy, are you in the first grade?" Dr. Victoria Melcher asked the girl, whose name tag said, "Joy Collins, 1."
Joy's eyes got big. "How did you know?"
The biggest line read "F S K T Z." Joy read "F A K T A."
"Is that hard for you to see?" "Yep."
"Tell me, is number one better, or number two?" "Two."
"Better here, or … better here?" "Here."
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The exam found that Joy is legally blind in one eye and not much better in the other.
Within the week, before the holidays, she'll have two pairs of glasses, one purple, one red; one set for home, and one that stays in school.
Before the exam was over, Melcher asked Joy to "look right here at my pen." Then she took turns covering Joy's eyes, checking their movement. The pen didn't move, but when she switched eyes rapidly, Joy saw the pen in two different places.
And for a moment, the girl who would soon see forgot she was not to suppose to believe. And Joy asked, "What was that — magic?"
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).