How George Mendoza Got 95% Participation in His Oregon Schools’ Dental Screenings
George Mendoza discovered how crucial a child’s health is when it comes to academic success, prompting him to integrate dental screenings in state school health programs.
When Oregon restructured its school system around seven years ago, George Mendoza was charged with aligning different segments — early learning, K-12 and higher education — to ensure children were prepared at every stage of schooling. He worked with teams to decide what indicators mattered, and laid out a kinder-readiness program as well as standardized testing in areas like math and English. To his surprise, one indicator that surfaced was dental screenings. Teachers and administrators flagged the strong link between good oral hygiene and academic performance for their students — right down to attendance.
And so Mendoza, now superintendent of La Grande School District, worked to bring dental screenings into his school district. That work is part of Oregon’s larger success story in expanding preventive dental care to the state’s children: In 2012, only around 1,000 children received dental care outside of a dental office. By 2016, more than 11,000 did, thanks to expanded care from groups like Advantage Dental from DentaQuest.
Mendoza’s success in bringing oral health care to children who truly need it is exactly what it means to be a Preventist. And the focus on school-based oral health is even more important as many school districts cancel or delay these services due to COVID-19.
Why did dental screenings become so important in your work to align Oregon’s schools?
I remember speaking with experts and hearing data points about oral health and how it impacted everything for our kids — like being more likely to develop illnesses like the flu that would keep them home from school. Studies show that link between oral health and academic performance, so we tried to think about a more holistic approach to education — to focus on the health and wellness of the child, too. If kids are chronically absent, we need to facilitate well checks that families aren’t able to provide. We worked with wellness agencies to give them support, and we framed it “from cradle to career.” When you think, “What is our obligation to these kids?” It was easy to champion.
After determining the benefit of good oral health among students, how did you get support from parents?
We brought in Advantage Dental to do the screenings right in the schools. We would do passive consent, indicating to families that their kids would be seen in a three- to five-minute checkup, and, if a follow up was needed, there’d need to be active consent. I didn’t know how it would be received, but most people appreciated it, and it wound up being OK. To my surprise, around 95 percent of families wanted their kids screened.
If we did have issues where a child had a lot of cavities or deep needs, these folks from Advantage Dental were able to detect it and work with the family to treat the child. If the family didn’t have insurance, they’d still find ways to help. Everyone involved adopted a viewpoint that was more holistic and collaborative so our kids could have their needs met orally, mentally and physically — and ultimately give more in the classroom. It really created a “Rah, rah, we care about each other!” feeling and broke down the system’s silos.
How do you think other communities should implement your approach?
[As of early September, Oregon has yet to outline how these programs will continue in a post-COVID-19 world.]
We should implement school-based oral health at the federal level. It’s good to have resources to support children and families who are underserved — to screen kids even if it’s just once or twice a year. It creates a collaborative environment with parents and teachers and outside agencies, and that level of involvement makes it easier for a kid to be successful. It creates that village. In the case of our screenings, that ounce of prevention was worth the pound of cure.