Stockton Record: “Nonprofit helping S.J. kids fight ‘silent epidemic'”

Excited about crayons! Courtesy of The Stockton Record

Excited about crayons! Courtesy of The Stockton Record

The article below was written by Stockton Record Reporter Elizabeth Roberts. The full article is also available on the Stockton Record website.

STOCKTON — A cavity can cost a child more than a tooth. For children such as Washington Elementary first-grader Osvaldo Conde-Velasquez, it could cost them their future.

A schoolwide giveaway Thursday of nearly $20,000 in learning materials included a dental care kit in every bag, courtesy of the nonprofit K to College and Huawei Technologies. Osvaldo, 6, whose front teeth are capped with stainless steel, was ecstatic when he opened his.

There’s a surprising link between dental care and literacy — and a profound disparity in care — and educators and policymakers are increasingly taking note.

Dubbed the “silent epidemic” in a groundbreaking surgeon general’s report, untreated dental disease can lead not just to severe health problems but to chronic school absences as well. And those absences in turn are a major stumbling block to a child’s ability to learn how to read. A child who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade — and two-thirds of the state’s third-graders are affected by tooth decay, a California Smile Survey found — is at risk of falling behind or dropping out altogether.

“One of the most significant challenges that young children face in becoming strong readers is chronic absences from school,” said Jennifer Torres Siders, who champions literacy in the community as part of her work with University of the Pacific’s Beyond Our Gates Initiative. Dental care, in fact, is one of the issues Beyond Our Gates hopes to study further in the near future. “It stands to reason if you’re not in class learning from your teacher, you’re going to have a hard time building all the he foundational skills you need in becoming a strong reader later on. And often one of the biggest causes of absences is poor dental health.”

The numbers in the 2000 surgeon general’s oral health report, the first of its kind, were staggering: Tooth decay was found to be the most common chronic childhood illness, with 51 million school hours lost to dental-related illnesses each year.

For poor children, the numbers are worse. Low-income elementary children suffer twice as much tooth decay as their affluent peers, and a 2010 study found almost 75 percent of low-income students in California had at least one cavity.

Every one of the students qualifies for free lunches at Boggs Tract’s Washington Elementary and fits into the low-income category, Principal Olivia Castillo said. That makes it the perfect venue for what K to College is hoping to become: “a supply bank just like a food bank for under-resourced children and youth that may otherwise go without,” said Benito Delgado-Olson, executive director of the Oakland-based nonprofit.

“It’s the right thing and it should already be happening,” said Delgado-Olson, who started K to College with Steve Frances and other University of California, Berkeley, students in 2007 and helped turn it into the largest effort of its kind in the nation. “It’s silly that there’s kids going to school and their basic material needs are unmet. We spend so much on education and now on health care, and for kids to be at school without paper and supplies and to have poor oral health be the No. 2 cause of absenteeism, it just shouldn’t be that way. That’s not a free public education.”

With Denti-Cal reimbursement at only about one-third of what private insurance pays, finding dentists who accept Denti-Cal, Medi-Cal’s dental program, can be a challenge. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, who joined Stockton Unified Superintendent Julie Penn and other officials for the kit giveaway, said that’s something that can be tackled at the legislative level.

“These dentists come out of their dental education with half a million dollars in debt, so we need to find a way to make sure that if they put their dental education to public use that they have that debt relieved in some way,” he said after Thursday’s presentation. “I think that would make a big difference.”

In addition to the kits given out Thursday, roughly 2,000 more will be distributed to homeless children in San Joaquin County through other agencies and school districts, Delgado-Olson said. To date, K to College has given $14.5 million worth of supplies to 230,000 children in the state, and Huawei Technologies has been a key partner in the nonprofit’s efforts to expand.

“Yay for Huawei!” Washington Elementary’s roughly 250 students shouted in the cafeteria as Penn led them in an “outside voice” chant. “I am college bound!”

“The San Joaquin Valley isn’t one of the first areas corporations tend to think of in terms of bringing needed supplies and volunteerism,” said Alison Jenkin, director of government and public relations at Huawei’s Santa Clara site. “To be able to give back and to be able to do this type of thing, it’s the best.”