How, and why, some schools provide dental care for needy children

About Mary Otto

Mary Otto, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, is AHCJ's topic leader on oral health and the author of "Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America." She can be reached at mary@healthjournalism.org.

In a series of stories, “The Burden of Poverty: A Backpack of Heartache,” reporters at the School News Network, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., are exploring the deep challenges poverty creates for local students and their families as well as strategies schools are employing to helping disadvantaged students succeed.

Articles in the series so far have examined the correlation between low test scores and low income and have provided a candid look at the struggles of a nearly homeless honor student. The series has highlighted the ways schools are trying to address the health disparities that can make it harder for poor children to succeed in school.

One recent story looked at the role school nurses play in helping poor children cope with chronic diseases. A Nov. 14 piece explains how a school-based dental program attends to the oral health needs of children who might otherwise be distracted from their studies by the debilitating pain of untreated dental disease.

In that story, headlined “Dental Team Saving Teeth, School Days, In Districts With High Need” reporter Erin Albanese writes about the work of eight teams of hygienists, dentists and assistants who treat 13,000 students per year at 72 Michigan schools in jurisdictions including Kelloggsville, Kentwood, Grand Rapids and Wyoming.

Fluoride flavor was a concern for Analashia Reid, a Wyoming Public Schools West Elementary second grader, during her recent dental cleaning.

“It’s bubblegum,” said Jeanette VanOeffelen a dental hygienist.

“I like bubblegum,” said a reassured Analashia, hoping to avoid mint flavor.

At West Elementary School alone, 320 of about 600 students, recently received full dental exams, x-rays, cleaning services, fluoride treatments and, if needed, sealants, through Cherry Health, a non-profit community health organization that has provided free dental care to students since 1992.

Students who need more extensive care are referred to local Cherry Health clinics. Access to regular preventive and restorative treatments ensure better overall health as well as school performance.

“If a child has a toothache, he or she is not testing, sleeping or eating well,” Peggy Betzinger, director of the school link health program for Cherry Health tells Albanese.

The reporter observes that for the poor families, who otherwise might never see a dentist, “the service is not just a money-saver, it is saving their children’s teeth.”

“There are striking disparities in dental disease by income,” Betzinger says. “Poor children suffer twice as much dental caries (decay or cavities) than their more affluent peers.”

There is plenty of research out there to back her up – research that reporters can use for their stories.

This fact sheet from the National Maternal and Child Oral Health Resource Center offers a useful look at some of the leading studies on the associations between oral health and school performance.

And though it came out in 2000, then-Surgeon General David Satcher’s Oral Health in America report endures as a public health landmark in its deep examination of the impact of dental disparities on children.

School News Network, funded exclusively with advertising money, has been developed in collaboration with Kent Intermediate School District in the Grand Rapids area.

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