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The annual Stanley P. Stone Lecture, Thursday, January 29, 11 a.m., CGS Auditorium, delivered by Pulitzer-winner Edward O. Wilson

Week of 23 January 2004· Vol. VII, No. 17

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Bright smiles in the city
SDM provides free dental care in Chelsea schools

By David J. Craig

Jennifer Soncini, an SDM assistant clinical professor and a pediatric dentist at the dental school's Chelsea School Dental Center, treats Chelsea third-grader Gabriella McLellan, with help from dental assistant Miguel Tabares. Photo by Vernon Doucette


Jennifer Soncini, an SDM assistant clinical professor and a pediatric dentist at the dental school's Chelsea School Dental Center, treats Chelsea third-grader Gabriella McLellan, with help from dental assistant Miguel Tabares. Photo by Vernon Doucette

As a single mother of four, Saldis Lugo is accustomed to making tough money decisions. In recent years, none has been as difficult as foregoing her kids' dental care.

“I manage to afford the dentist usually by cutting out other things, but we've had to skip appointments,” says Lugo, a Chelsea resident and self-employed real estate agent with no private medical or dental insurance. “Sometimes I have the money, sometimes I don't.”

It was in part to help parents like Lugo that BU's Goldman School of Dental Medicine (SDM) last spring launched the Chelsea School Dental Center, which offers free basic dental care to the city's public school students. Located in a nurse's office converted into a dental facility at Chelsea's Williams Middle School, the center sees a full schedule of patients every Tuesday and Friday afternoon. SDM practitioners clean teeth and fill cavities on site, and refer patients requiring extractions or surgery to other BU-affiliated facilities, such as Franciscan Children's Hospital in Brighton.

The dental center is part of BU's unique education reform partnership with Chelsea, through which the University has run the city's school system since 1989. And it helps fulfill a basic tenet of the partnership: that in order to help students in the economically disadvantaged city achieve in school, their needs outside of the classroom also must be attended to.

“Having good teeth obviously is an end in itself, but providing dental care also has an educational objective because we want to create the best conditions for learning,” says SED Dean Douglas Sears, former chairman of the BU Management Team that oversees the Chelsea public schools. “A healthy kid with healthy teeth has an easier time paying attention in school and studying hard.”

The Goldman School has been involved in the Chelsea schools since the inception of the partnership, providing dental-care education and screenings. But in the late 1990s, SDM faculty working in the schools decided that more needed to be done. “We were finding that about one third of the students we screened had untreated cavities,” says Michelle Henshaw, an SDM assistant professor and director of the dental school's Community Health Programs, who oversees SDM's involvement in Chelsea. “It became clear that referring them to dentists wasn't enough, because they just couldn't afford good care.”

So in 2000, SDM began providing Chelsea students with protective tooth sealants. That program, which initially received financial support from the Massachusetts Coalition for Oral Health, continues today, as does SDM's classroom education and screening efforts. And then last April, SDM opened the Chelsea School Dental Center with a one-year startup grant from the MassHealth Access Program, a collaboration between the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Massachusetts Division of Medical Assistance. The Goldman School now pays all costs associated with the program, including the salaries of a part-time pediatric dentist and dental hygienist, and a full-time dental assistant.

Because of the center, Lugo's children for the first time receive regular care from a pediatric dentist. “The care is excellent, and my kids love the people there,” she says. “Before they go now they make drawings for the dentist. It's like they're going to see a big friend.” While Lugo has MassHealth, a state-funded health and dental insurance for low-income families, she says she could not find a pediatric dentist in her area willing to accept new patients covered by MassHealth.

Even Jennifer Soncini, the Chelsea School Dental Center's director and pediatric dentist, has not been able to locate local pediatric dentists willing to take new MassHealth patients, hence referrals from the center are to BU-affiliated facilities. Most of the 350 patients she has treated thus far were referred to her from the SDM hygienist who does screenings in the Chelsea schools. Many of these patients have no insurance at all.

“I get 17-year-olds in here who have never seen a dentist in their lives,” says Soncini, who also is an SDM assistant clinical professor. “Many of the students have been in the United States for only a couple of months, or maybe for a year. I see rampant decay, and cases where I know it's going to be a struggle to save a single tooth.”

Soncini, who is fluent in Spanish, says it is obvious that members of the community appreciate the center. “I get parents who still think that they have to pay me after a visit,” she says. “When I tell them that they don't, I get lots of hugs and kisses.”


23 January 2004
Boston University
Office of University Relations