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A Des Moines High School Adds a Dental Clinic

Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

A growing number of schools across the country are providing more services to make life easier for students who have fallen behind in their coursework. Things like food banks and day-care centers. An alternative high school in Des Moines has become the first in the state to install an on-site dental clinic.

Dental assistant Jenny Hen has just ordered high school junior Dustin Elliott to open wide as she begins a thorough cleaning of his teeth.

The 16-year-old didn’t have to go far for this dental appointment. He didn’t even need to step outside on a cold January afternoon. He simply walked through the halls of Scavo High School on the west end of downtown Des Moines. The young man points out a chipped front tooth as he’s lowered in the exam chair. He broke it during a fall while running. Dentist Peter Blough then discovers something he didn’t expect to see in the mouth of a teenager.

“You know, you’re hanging on to a couple of baby teeth down there, that’s what’s going on,” he says.

  The Nolden Gentry Dental Clinic at Scavo is a first of its kind in Iowa, a fully equipped dentist office inside a public school. It’s named for an historic figure in Des Moines education circles, the first African-American elected to the Des Moines School Board. The clinic’s namesake, a longtime Des Moines attorney and board member of various foundations, says most of the young people come from low-income families and can use some health-care support.

Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio
Nolden Gentry, the first African-American member of the Des Moines School Board, has his name on the new dental clinic at Scavo High School.

“There are a lot of youngsters who do not have dental insurance and who have dental issues," Gentry says. "And so what we try to do is to bring to them the opportunity to get basic dental service.”

Scavo is an alternative high school, geared toward students who have fallen behind in their course credits and are off-track toward graduation. It had already taken steps to ease the day-to-day burdens for its students. It offers day care for young parents, a food pantry so kids don’t go hungry, and a medical clinic, which is beginning to see patients. Eye exams are soon to come. The school’s principal, Rich Blonigan, says the goal is to remove any obstacles that might keep a student from attending school.

“What we’ve found is offering those things to students and families just alleviates some of those barriers," Blonigan says. "It helps get them in the door.”

Money to equip and operate the two-chair office one day a week is coming from grants. The Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation put up $250,000, the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation tossed in 55,000. The community service coordinator for Scavo, Lyn Marchant, pulled partners together for the project. During a floss-cutting ceremony to officially open the clinic, she sounded relieved it had finally come to fruition.

“I’ve kind of compared this to having a baby," she says to laughter. "Helping this grow for nine or ten months and being able to watch it come to life to change lives, and to make a difference for young people across Des Moines Public Schools.”

As for Dustin Elliott, the young man with the chipped front tooth and troublesome baby teeth, dentist Peter Blough reassures him it’s all going to be okay.

“We can probably do that extraction, it’s going to be pretty simple," he tells the boy. "There’s not much left of that tooth, so I’d do them the same day, fixing that front tooth and then wiggling that baby tooth out for you.”

With a brighter smile and his dental concerns addressed, Elliott reenters the halls of Scavo High School with at least one barrier removed toward graduation.