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Catherine Whitlock, manager of the Farmington Bishop Optical, gives a tour of the new store on Wednesday. The spacious business, located at 4016 E. Main St., will include a wide selection of eyewear for the whole family.

— By Alysa Landry —

The Daily Times

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Thousands of Navajo schoolchildren are expected to earn better grades in school next year following the Tribal Council's vote last week to remedy a widespread problem.

Call it shortsightedness on the part of parents, lawmakers or teachers, but the fact remains — more than 9,000 Navajo students can't see the blackboard.

"There are a couple of things that cause this," said Shiprock Council Delegate Leonard Anthony. "A lot of the parents don't have the insurance, and many others are in the low-income bracket. When those two conditions mix, the children are neglected in regards to their eyewear."

The council voted during a special session to appropriate $495,000 to the Navajo Nation Department of Youth Development to fund eye exams and glasses for 9,000 low-income Navajo students in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. Students attending school on and off the reservation are eligible for services.

The bulk of the money is expected to go to the Gallup-based Bishop Optical, which already partners with the Navajo Nation to provide eyeglasses for elders. The money, which comes from the Nation's Unreserved, Undesignated Fund, will pay for eye exams and glasses priced at about $55 per pair, said Julie Smith, special programs manager for Bishop Optical.

"Really, we're not making a profit off of this," she said. "We are carrying all our expenses. The Nation just pays for the services and glasses. When there's a difference, we pay that."

Bishop Optical contracted with the Nation to provide exams for about 8,000 elders last year, and donated 800 pairs of glasses, Smith said. The Navajo Sight for Students program will rely on school nurses to refer low-income students for services. Exams are performed in the Gallup or Farmington locations of Bishop Optical, in the company's mobile clinic or at any other participating service, Anthony said.

"We worded the legislation to make the contract open to anybody who provides these services," he said. "The schools — public or Bureau of Indian Education — will formulate a plan for a referral system."

The contract calls for 2,250 children to receive glasses every quarter during 2008, but Smith said she hopes to renew the contract next year.

"We have had thousands of requests from parents and grandparents," she said. "We get tons of children who are enrolled in school and ask their parents for glasses, but the parents can't afford them. It's important for children to see. It's vital to their education and their livelihood."

Anthony, who serves on the council's Education Committee, hopes providing children with glasses will raise students' confidence and test scores — specifically, the districts' Adequate Yearly Progress goals.

"The No. 1 thing from the education perspective is we want the children to succeed, to be able to read and write and to meet the personal and individual goals they have," he said. "The other piece is to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress goals in the schools."

Alysa Landry: alandry@daily-times.com