Marijke Crawford was worried that her son, a third-grader at St. Stephen Catholic School in New Orleans, might have a hearing problem because, as she put it, "his teacher told me that sometimes she has to call on him more than once." So when she received a letter from St. Stephen notifying her that her son had been selected to get an audio screening at school last week, the news "was a blessing."
Crawford's son was among 100 students from four area elementary schools who received hearing tests at St. Stephen on Oct. 14 as part of Project HOPE, a pilot program designed to provide to critical screening and other professional services for students at four urban Catholic elementary schools.
The kids come from communities that once were served by a variety of state and federal programs, but many of those programs have been cut dramatically in recent years. Project HOPE aims to fill that void for up to 800 students and their families.
Project HOPE was announced last month by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in conjunction with the Bishop Perry Center and a coalition of area professional service providers. The Bishop Perry Center is a Catholic outreach mission anchored in Faubourg Marigny. The services being provided via Project HOPE include an array of medical screenings — eye, ear, dental and primary medical care — as well as behavioral assessments and legal assistance with issues affecting families and children.
The services also include follow-up care. A child who needs eyeglasses, for example, will be provided glasses free of charge. The first round of screenings began with the hearing exams last week at St. Stephen.
In the quiet hallways of St. Stephen last Tuesday, 100 children from the four participating schools lined up outside two classrooms to get middle ear exams and hearing acuity tests. The kids were selected by their teachers at St. Stephen, St. Alphonsus and Holy Ghost Catholic schools in New Orleans, as well as St. Anthony School in Gretna. Each school sent 25 students to St. Stephen for the exams. Graduate students from the LSU Health Sciences Center School of Allied Health administered the tests.
"When they sent that letter home, I was so grateful," Crawford said of the notice she received about the hearing tests. "It was so convenient because everything was done right at school — and right on time."
Other parents whose children were selected for the hearing exams expressed similar sentiments.
"For the school to do it, and to tie it into how it affects their learning, is so important," said James Wright, whose daughter Jasmine is a fifth-grader at St. Stephen. "A lot of parents don't have the resources or time to get that taken care of at this stage of their lives. Those screenings will definitely help me as a parent to stay on top of how my daughter is doing."
Other screenings will continue this week, beginning with dental exams at all four schools.
"These screenings and follow-up care can have a great impact on the ability of students to have successful learning experiences," said Cynthia Valadez, volunteer coordinator of Project HOPE. "We know that students cannot succeed unless stumbling blocks to learning are discovered and removed early."
In announcing Project HOPE, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond noted that cuts in public funding, along with the economic downturn, "have put quality elementary education at risk." Project HOPE is in its infancy, but its supporters hope it will lead to significantly improved outcomes for students who receive the program's services.
"The resources available to the brave, dedicated men and women who daily fight to educate their students have been stripped to the bone and nowhere is this more evident than in the elementary schools of our city," Aymond said. "Among the most basic, indeed critical services lacking in elementary schools today are professional screening services to early on discover problems, such as health issues, which may prevent a student from learning, which may cause, in turn, serious behavioral problems."
The Rev. William F. Maestri, director of the Bishop Perry Center and former superintendent of archdiocesan schools, said the pilot program could not have gotten off the ground without a coalition of service providers who have a long track record of serving the needy in New Orleans. Coalition members include:
• Southeast Louisiana Area Health Education Center, which will provide health education programs on nutrition, health maintenance and healthy habits related to lifestyle and diet.
• The Lion's Club Eye Foundation, which will provide visual health services, screenings and follow-up care.
• Louisiana State University School of Dentistry, which will provide dental screenings and follow-up care.
• LSU School of Allied Health's Audiology Department, which will conduct hearing tests and follow-up screenings.
• CrescentCare Center, which will provide primary medical screening and care.
• Family Services of Greater New Orleans and Mercy Family Center, which will provide behavioral assessments, counseling and treatment.
• Project HELP (Homeless Experience Legal Protection), which will provide family-centered legal services to students and their families.
AnJanette Perkins, whose daughter Amber is a fourth-grader at St. Stephen, said she would have had to take time off work — and take her daughter out of school — to get a hearing test done if not for Project HOPE.
"It's great to have the services for every child who might need it, especially right there in school, because you never know which children might need it," she said. "And it's better to find out sooner rather than later."