ARLINGTON -- For many, it was their first encounter with dental treatment. But there was little anxiety among the Hale Elementary School third-graders as they waited their turn Wednesday to visit a makeshift dental clinic in the classroom next door.
"Who wants to be next to have sealant put on their teeth?" a clinic worker sang out as though she were offering cookies.
The smiling hygienists and assistants and day-care atmosphere were making it easy for the kids -- and free for their parents -- at the roving clinic operated by Dental Health Arlington. The nonprofit group annually visits about 30 Arlington elementary schools and one Mansfield school in low-income neighborhoods, areas where dental care is often not a high priority.
Ethan Hinton was among 52 prescreened Hale Elementary students who lined up to get sealant on their molars. The sealant can resist cavities for seven to 10 years. And he was ready.
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"I've only been to the dentist one time, and that was to see my dad get worked on," Ethan said. "I think it was pretty cool, and I wanted to try it out for myself -- to help my teeth."
Jeweliana Johnson was less eager, despite her big smile.
"I'm kind of scared, because I've never been to the dentist before," she said.
It's a common refrain among those whom Dental Health Arlington wants to help. About half the students who visit the annual school clinics have never been to a dentist.
The group, which is grant-subsidized and operates a clinic at 201 N. East St. in Arlington, was founded 17 years ago to provide low-cost dental services in south and east Tarrant County, Executive Director April Harris said.
It founded the SMILES program -- Sealing Molars Improves the Lives of Every Student -- two years later to reach out to schools where a large majority of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.
Each week or so, hygienists spend a day at a school teaching oral health and handing out toothbrushes to all first-, second- and third-graders, as well screening the second- and third-graders for the sealant. The treatment is done the next day for the students who bring written permission from their parents. SMILES hygienists and assistants treated about 5,000 students last school year, program director Glenda Bell said.
In addition, 2,200 adults and children visited the main clinic with regular appointments to see a dentist and received discount-cost dental treatment, including fillings and tooth extractions, cleaning and other preventive care. The cost for an exam and X-rays is about $35.
"But we probably turn away two or three times as many people as we can actually treat," Harris said. "The need is astonishing."
Yet many low-income families don't even seek dental care, officials said. And fewer than half the parents follow through when hygienists recommend they make an appointment,
"They don't see the need for it," hygienist Laura Stinson said. "If [their children] don't have pain, they don't think anything is wrong."
For families struggling to pay bills, dental care is often considered a luxury, Harris said. But sometimes transportation is a problem, and some parents might mistakenly believe that they have to prove legal residency.
Some parents don't believe that dental care is important for kids because "they're just baby teeth, and they're going to fall out anyway," Harris said.
But those teeth last seven years or more, and lack of care can cause developmental and social problems, she said. She cited studies indicating that dental problems are the second leading cause of student absenteeism in the U.S., behind colds, and cause 51 million hours of lost school time each year.
"If they have pain, it affects their chewing, it affects their speech and affects how their next teeth grow in," Harris said. "Kids can't learn when they're hurting. They're not retaining, they're not sleeping at night, they don't eat right, they get made fun of at school when they have black and broken teeth."
But she believes that the school clinics are making a difference.
When the SMILES program began, hygienists found visible tooth decay in 62 percent of student patients, she said. That's down to 37 percent.