Dentists turn to high schools to boost workforce amid staffing shortage

Idaho’s dentists are facing a staffing shortage, and they’re turning to local high schools to solve it.

In a survey distributed by the Idaho State Dental Association (ISDA), 63% of respondents said staffing issues are their main pain point. A shortage of dental assistants and hygienists is “greatly reducing access to dental care in the Treasure Valley,” said Nollie Haws, senior communications manager for the organization.

So some Treasure Valley dentists are turning to dental assistant training programs to help shore up their workforce.

The longstanding career-technical tracks teach students standard procedures and hygiene practices, and offer internship and job shadowing opportunities. They can work in the field immediately after graduation if they choose.

Dr. Kim Keller, president of ISDA, is collaborating with the Nampa program to operate a clinic on school grounds. He hopes the program will create a mutual relationship between students, dentists and the school districts.

“We’ve been trying to come up with as many ideas as we can to make this work,” Keller said. “We’re hopeful that this exposes students earlier, and we get more of them coming out in the future excited to be part of dentistry.”

Nampa clinic offers services to students, community

Over the past year, director of the Nampa dental program Lucretia Bollinger worked with Keller to open the ICAT Dental Clinic at Skyview High School.

“This is the most demand I’ve ever seen for dental assistants,” said Bollinger. “Students can get a job and work and have a career just out of high school. We wanted to open that up even more.”

For Keller, the emphasis was on giving students opportunities to get in-depth experience in a comfortable environment, while also building a stronger pipeline from schools into dentistry jobs.

“When you’re in a real dental clinic with those students, it’s hard for them to sit at the chair and do much work because things are moving quickly and they’re just mostly observing,” Keller said. “But in this situation, we set the clinic up in a way to allow a dentist to come and work, and have those students participate with us. We can teach them more than what they can do normally.”

The clinic is available to the Nampa community. It provides exams, X-Rays, cleanings and fillings.

Keller said he and Bollinger intentionally worked to make the services available to people, especially students, on Medicaid. The clinic doesn’t accept other insurances, but does take cash, check and credit card.

Keller hopes the program will provide needed access to the community, generate income to sustain itself and better prepare students for careers in dentistry.

Boise and Nampa training programs prep students for careers in dentistry

The Nampa School District’s dental assistant training program started 20 years ago in a small classroom at Skyview.

Bollinger, who helped create the curriculum and was later hired to lead the program, says it has grown from 15 students the first year to over 70 juniors and seniors this fall. And the classroom now has four state-of-the-art dental chairs and brand new equipment, thanks to a grant the CTE program received last year.

After completing a state-mandated intro class, students learn about the history, law and ethics of dentistry, and complete units on disease prevention and infection control. They learn how to do general procedures, and can learn speciality operations geared toward orthodontics or periodontics.

Seniors complete internships and job shadowing in dentists’ offices throughout the valley.

Kendra Law, a Skyview High graduate, started planning her dentistry career in middle school. When her family moved to the Vallivue district her sophomore year, she open-enrolled back to Nampa just to go through the dental training program. She graduated in 2016, and is now prepping to finish dental school in Utah.

It was great getting to see a future career while still being in high school,” said Law. “That’s not something most high schoolers or most people get. I think it’s a great program.” 

The Boise School District’s dentistry track follows a similar outline.

 

Palsulich, a senior, supervised his classmates as they worked on sanitization and hygiene practices.

Boise’s program has fewer enrollments than Nampa, and doesn’t have a clinic in the district facility. But program director Gail Enmark says she’s open to partnering with dentists to grow the program in the future.

Mark Palsulich, a senior in the district, is interning at a local dentist’s office to get hands-on experience. He says he’s considering becoming a dentist, but thinks the skills he’s learned can translate into other careers no matter what he chooses.

“I’m a lifeguard right now and this professional training prepared me for that,” Palsulich said of his experience learning medical sterilization, customer service and first aid practices in the program. “I’d tell students to try it for a semester. If you don’t love it, you can always do something else.”

The Boise program is available to juniors and seniors in the Boise and West Ada districts.

Sadie Dittenber

About Sadie Dittenber

Reporter Sadie Dittenber focuses on K-12 policy and politics. She is a College of Idaho graduate, born and raised in the Treasure Valley. You can follow Sadie on Twitter @sadiedittenber and send her news tips at [email protected]

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