On Air
0:00
0:00
Open In Popup
MPR News

Dentists visit schools to help low-income kids

Share story

Smile
Arcelia Sanchez, 7, is getting her teeth worked on by dental hygienists. Dental care is one of the most common unmet health needs for children in Minnesota and across the country.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

Arcelia Sanchez, 7, is getting her teeth worked on by dental hygienists, but she's not at the dentist's office. She's in a small administrative office at John A. Johnson Elementary School in St. Paul.

During the visit, Arcelia receives a cleaning, fluoride treatment and has a sealant applied. In the coming weeks, she will be back for some followup visits that include some restorative work.

Learning and hygiene
Sarah Wovcha is executive director for Children's Dental Services. She says dental problems are directly linked to children not doing well in school.
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

The hygienists treating Arcelia work for Children's Dental Services, the state's largest nonprofit provider of dental care to low-income children and pregnant women.

"One of the highest unmet health needs for children in Minnesota, and really across the country, is dental care," says Sarah Wovcha, executive director for Children's Dental Services. 

Wovcha says dental problems are directly linked to children not doing well in school.

"Tooth decay tends to leave children in acute pain. And so they're unable to concentrate on academics to perform in core skills like reading and writing. There's been a real correlation between those two," says Wovcha. "The crisis comes about when schools try to reach out and connect to that care, and there are no dentists available to provide it."

Children's Dental Services is one of several partners working with Johnson Elementary.  Johnson is one of three schools in St. Paul providing health services directly to students as part of what's called an Achievement Plus school.

Principled principal
Johnson Elementary principal Frank Feinberg says the school's concept "is to build a community, make it more welcoming to families by providing services that, up until this point, you could go all over town to provide."
MPR Photo/Marisa Helms

"The concept of this school is to build a community, make it more welcoming to families by providing services that, up until this point, you could go all over town to provide. So, it's a great concept," says Johnson Elementary principal Frank Feinberg.

Johnson Elementary has about 320 students pre-K to sixth grade. Ninety percent of the school's families are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program. Many of those families also don't have health or dental insurance.

In order to provide the free and reduced care, Children's Dental Services hires its own dentists and hygienists at market rates. It's a huge investment.

Earlier this summer, the nonprofit got a $200,000 grant from a group of companies,  including Delta Dental and 3M. 

Wovcha says the infusion of cash will allow Children's Dental Services to expand care throughout the St. Paul schools.  She says her organization expects to provide dental services to 3,000 St. Paul children this year.