First dental certification program opens in city schools

Shayla Thornton, a dental assistant student at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, gives a fluoride treatment to Christopher King, assistant vice principal for community health at MedStar Health.
Shayla Thornton, a dental assistant student at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, gives a fluoride treatment to Christopher King, assistant vice principal for community health at MedStar Health.(Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

It wasn't long into Deaisha Nixon's dental appointment this week that she found herself taking charge.

When one dental assistant reached in a pocket for a glove, Nixon noted that they should be using a clean one from a box. And when the suction tube was placed in her mouth for too long, she pointed out that could cause other people's saliva to backwash.


"I couldn't believe they didn't know stuff that I had learned in my 10th-grade year," said the Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy 11th-grader. "I wasn't having it."

So as Nixon gazed around Friday at the new, state-of-the-art dental laboratory that opened at Vivien T. Thomas — which celebrated 10 years of training high school students from Southwest Baltimore in health and biomedical professions — she noted how much more advanced in the field she would become by the time she graduates.

She and her classmates will become the first in Baltimore City schools to pursue certifications in dentistry.

"This has more stuff than a regular dentist office," Nixon said as she looked around at the new, $610,000 laboratory outfitted with a panoramic X-ray machine, a top-of-the line X-ray film processor, professional dental chairs and sterilization equipment.

"As Baltimore City students, we don't have much, so this is just going to open a lot of opportunities and keep us motivated," added Nixon, who wants to be a dental hygienist.

Vivien T. Thomas is one of 20 middle and high schools that have Career and Technology Education programs, which give students the option of graduating with certifications in fields such as health and bio-sciences, business management and finance, manufacturing and engineering, construction and development, and consumer hospitality and tourism.

When students complete the dental certification program, they enter the job market as dental assistants and could transfer credits to their health science programs in college.

From 2010 to 2011, enrollment in the district's CTE programs has grown by nearly 54 percent, and the percentage of students earning certification rose to 86 percent over the same period.


According to data released this week by the school system, the percentage of students who earned certification dipped to 71 percent in 2012.

Michael Thomas, who oversees the city's CTE programs, noted that obtaining certification is optional and said his office is investigating why the number of certifications tapered off last year.

Thomas said the district is focusing on raising the rigor of the programs, offering more professional development for teachers. He said the district has convened a CTE program advisory board to ensure that program leaders stay abreast of the latest equipment and professional standards.

"We truly want every student to leave with a certification, and this lab is an example of the continual efforts to provide that opportunity," he said.

Starletta Jackson, principal of Vivien T. Thomas, said that at least 80 percent of her students obtain certification as nursing assistants, the school's most popular program. The school also has a simulation room where students practice on dummy patients.

Upon graduation, students who complete the dental program will be qualified to take X-rays, make tooth impressions and construct study cast models. The students also will be proficient in instrument transfer, oral cavity evacuation and moisture control techniques.


Jackson said hands-on training has been crucial for her students as they seek certification, and will be even more critical to put them "at the forefront of oral hygiene."

"There's a difference between book knowledge and being able to perform the skills," she said. "Because at the end of the day, we're trying to train students in something they can take home and to the community."

Representatives from members of Maryland's medical community, including University of Maryland BioPark and MedStar Health, were also on hand to celebrate the opening of the new dental lab.

Lawrence B. Caplin, director of CF Charities, which supports oral health care in schools, said that the program will help address a shortage of minorities in the dental industry, where about 5 percent of dentists are African-American and 5 percent are Latino.

"By designing programs like this across the nation is going to change that," Caplin said.

His organization will also be offering scholarships to Vivien T. students that will encourage them to do work in their community.

"This is going to make a real impact on oral health care across the city," he said.