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In-school dental care lifts student performance

University first established dental care in high-needs California schools in 2010
One in four California sixth-graders has never seen a dentist. A student at Harmon Johnson Elementary School in Sacramento, above, gets a cleaning. A University of the Pacific study helped establish on-site dental care to high-needs schools.
One in four California sixth-graders has never seen a dentist. A student at Harmon Johnson Elementary School in Sacramento, above, gets a cleaning. A University of the Pacific study helped establish on-site dental care to high-needs schools.

A quarter of California students have never seen a dentist by the time they complete fifth grade, according to a recently completed six-year study by the University of the Pacific.

Paul Glassman, the director of Pacific Center for Special Care, a program of the university’s dentistry, established dental care in various high-needs schools in 2010. The project has already inspired legislation to help fund more dental services.

The university raised $5.5 million to open dental facilities—that include a hygienist who visits periodically based on need—in California preschools, elementary schools, community centers and senior care facilities, Glassman says.

Harmon Johnson Elementary School in Sacramento City USD was one of the roughly 30 schools to join the program in 2010, as many students lacked access to their own dental care, says Principal David Nevarez.

Hygienists visit the school once a week to provide basic services such as cleanings, treatment for cavities and X-rays, Nevarez says. Students also learn about proper brushing and flossing. Many of them had come to school with toothaches from cavities or poor hygiene.

The school received a $400,000 grant from the university and has since received funding from the state to serve the 650 students.

And Nevarez has seen a link between increased health of his students and classroom performance. “We have one of the highest attendance rates in the district out of 50 schools because the kids come to school healthy and ready to learn,” Nevarez says. “We saw that when their teeth hurt it’s hard for them to concentrate.”

In California, Assembly Bill 648 has been presented to the senate to extend dental support to other schools by providing $4 million to communities.

The University of the Pacific report found that about two-thirds of children can be treated by an on-site hygienist, eliminating the need to see a dentist.

Though California is one of the first to provide dental care to its students, more states may in the future. Colorado (with private funding), Hawaii (through the state department of health) and Oregon (led by the University of Oregon Health Center) are considering programs, Glassman says.