Student Well-Being Opinion

Removing Learning Barriers With a Smile

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — May 21, 2014 3 min read
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Third-year dental student Grant McClendon gives a thumbs-up to patient, Angel Diaz, 3, of Pomona, who returns the greeting. Western University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine students and faculty provided free dental exams, and preventative oral health services to children. (Photo: Jeff Malet, WesternU)

By guest blogger Mark Maine

In Pomona, California, one of our strategies to close the achievement gap is to narrow the student “health gap.” And sometimes it’s as simple as treating a toothache.

In part, Pomona Unified School District’s strategy is to create School Based Health Centers (SBHC) to improve access to primary health and mental health care services in schools. Good physical and mental health helps ensure that students are ready to engage in school.

Early reports released by Covered California indicate the Affordable Care Act has improved access to health care; however, as recently as 2012, 26% of Pomona students were uninsured. Thus, a student’s primary care frequently came from a school nurse, in the emergency room, or not at all. According to David Larson, PUSD health services administrator, “It’s one of those things that if you have insurance, you don’t think too much about it. If you don’t have it, you are constantly living with, or in fear of, illness or injury.”

Dental problems alone keep students in California out of school an estimated 874,000 days a year, costing schools about $29.7 million in lost attendance based-funding, Frank Mirabal reported in a recent Heckinger Institute post.

SBHCs are not new; there are over 2,000 across the country and 226 in California. In research on outcomes, reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Sarah Walker and her colleagues found that, “SBHCs improved attendance rates for users compared with non-users, and grade point averages improved for mental health users over non-users.” Mirabal also cites a recent Child Trends report that found a positive correlation between integrated school based health and social services and improved student attendance and success.

SBHC Development in PUSD. Beginning fall 2013 Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona started providing free and low-cost oral health services to uninsured and underserved children. In 2013, over 14,000 PUSD health office visits were related to oral health. That’s more than half the students in the district with the vast majority of students complaining of toothaches. They don’t need MRIs or expensive medicine; they need access to dental care. In one effort (pictured above) Western University of Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine partnered with the Center for Oral Health and the American Dental Association to provide free dental exams, cleanings, fluoride treatments, and sealants to children 17 and younger.

SBHC outreach has made a difference. “It was a relief,” said Lisa Richards, a PUSD parent. “My boys were having a lot of problems with their teeth hurting them.”

PUSD knows that SBHCs alone will not close the gap, and it places school nurses and health assistants at the core of its wellness model. Next year as part of California’s new Local Control Funding Formula PUSD plans to add seven health services assistants, and we plan to add two additional school nurses the next year.

We believe children who are feeling healthy and not in pain are more likely to come to school, free of health-related distractions. If they’re in school, they’re more likely to learn and do well. Our challenge is to find the resources needed to grow and expand the number of SBHC’s in Pomona to insure academic success for all of our students.

(Mark Maine is director of student wellbeing for the Pomona Unified School District in Los Angeles County)

California educators are invited to post other examples of exemplary school-based health programs in the comment section below.

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