What is a school-based dental program?

August 6, 2022

Kids in a classroomDid you know that by age 8, over half of children have had a cavity in their baby teeth? That children from low-income families are twice as likely to have cavities than children from higher-income families?1  Dental care remains one of the most prevalent unmet health needs for children.

Taking care of your teeth and gums isn’t just important for a healthy mouth and welcoming smile; more and more research suggests that the health of one’s mouth mirrors their overall health. For example, research shows that keeping your mouth, teeth and gums healthy can help decrease your chance of serious medical issues down the road, including heart attack, stroke and diabetes.2

Though these may seem like remote issues, especially for school-aged children, the work of keeping your mouth healthy starts early. Two easy yet effective ways to help children maintain their healthy mouths are the use of sealants and the application of fluoride. And while these are a reliable and successful line of defense in the fight for oral health, these preventative treatments are out of reach for many families who don’t have access to dental care or have limited dental insurance.

School-based dental programs: prevention is key

Oral Health Partnership is creating earlier access to care for the children in our community that are at the greatest risk for cavities.  The sooner we can start educating the kids and parents on how to best take care of their teeth, the sooner we can start healthy lifetime dental habits.  And the sooner we can apply fluoride treatments the greater chance they will have healthy teeth as an adult.

We provide preventive care like teeth cleaning, assessment, fluoride treatments, sealants, and good brushing and diet advice.

  • The main purpose of fluoride treatments is to strengthen the enamel of the teeth. In one study it was shown to reduce decay by 43% in kids with permanent teeth and 37% in baby teeth. 3
  • Dental sealants can prevent 80% of cavities over 2 years in the back teeth, where 9 in 2 cavities happen. 4
  • The CDC reports that school-age children ages 6-11 without sealants have almost 3 times more cavities in the first molars than those with sealants.4

Why it is important to bring dental care to children while at school

Our goal is to prevent kids from having to go through unnecessary dental treatment like fillings, crowns, extractions and in serious cases hospital care. School-based dental programs can be easier on parents and help schools elevate the overall well-being of the students plus:

  • On average, 34 million school hours are lost each year because of unplanned (emergency) dental care. 5
  • Yearly there are 2 million visits in the US to hospital emergency rooms for dental pain. ER visits for dental pain cost around three times more than a visit to a dentist. 6
  • Cavities can cause pain and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, and learning. It can also affect social interactions and overall confidence.

How we set up our mobile clinics

First, we identify where the need is greatest.  Schools that have the greatest free or reduced lunch rates are our main target. Next, we partner with school staff and identify which children qualify for our services and get parents’ permission to see them in our mobile clinic within their school.  The school then finds space for us and we set up a full clinic with sterilizers so no tools or equipment leave un-sanitized.

Some spaces allow for a full team which includes: a dentist, assistants and hygienists while other smaller spaces allow just the dentist and assistant or hygienist and assistant. In those cases, the dentist will strictly do operative work and the hygienist will perform preventive care.  We return to schools twice within the school year to ensure they get fluoride treatments 2x’s, get teeth sealed as soon as they erupt and at a minimum get their teeth cleaned twice.

The dentists will examine the children’s teeth on the first visit and then come back a few weeks later to fix the teeth as planned. Our model provides full-circle care, where we can refer children to one of our five clinic locations if they cannot be seen in school by our dentist for exams, x-rays and follow-up treatment.

Applying sealants in schools to the nearly 7 million low-income children who don’t have them could prevent more than 3 million cavities and save up to $300 million in dental treatment costs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Seal-A-Smile program provides oral health education, screening, sealant placement and fluoride varnish application free of charge to elementary school students. We participate in Wisconsin’s Seal-A-Smile Program. This preventive dental services program brings treatment to children in more than 1,100 schools across Wisconsin.

More than one-third of Wisconsin children are covered by Public Health Insurance.

OHP treats around 10,000 of the state’s children in need yearly, with an average of 40% of those kids being seen at school. Children that qualify for our services have Medicaid state insurance or do not have dental insurance.

As we get prepared for the 2022/23 school year, we are excited to be able to see kids that might not otherwise get dental care and make sure everyone has a healthy, bright smile!

2022/23 School-Based Program supported by:

Nancy & Scott Armbrust Jack & Engrid Meng David L. & Rita E. Nelson Family Fund




WDA Foundation


1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fast Facts, Cavities

2 Mayo Clinic, Oral health: A window to your Overall Health

3 Cochrane Library, Fluoride varnishes for preventing dental caries in children and adolescents

4 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dental Sealants

5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Oral Health Fast Facts

6 American Dental Association, Action for Dental Health