Jump-starting students’ careers

Group of dental assisting students wearing masks in front of chalkboard

Students at Dickinson High School (DHS) in Dickinson, North Dakota, now have an opportunity to jump-start their careers before graduation by gaining education and experience in dental assisting, one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States. 

This year, DHS introduced a new entry-level dental assisting program that incorporates participating in interactive, online education from the DALE Foundation and taking exams through the Dental Assisting National Board (DANB). The program is for junior and senior students, and also includes participation in community service projects, dental office shadowing and clinical preceptorship hours. 

Upon completing the program, students will be eligible to earn DANB’s National Entry Level Dental Assistant (NELDA) certification and will have already completed some of the requirements to earn status as a North Dakota Qualified Dental Assistant (QDA). 

Filling a need in North Dakota 

The DHS dental assisting program was established to help address the growing shortage of dental assistants in the area. DHS health science teacher Bobbie Johnson, R.N., helped found the dental assisting program at DHS. Ms. Johnson says she heard about the shortage of dental assistants from several dentists. 

“There aren’t any dental assisting schools in our area,” Ms. Johnson explains. “Most dental assistants stay on the east side of North Dakota. Dentists in this area typically hire dental assistants with no experience or people who have moved to the area with a spouse seeking employment, and train them on the job.” 

Dental assisting is consistently ranked as one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statics estimates that between 2019 and 2029, there will be a 7% increase in job growth for dental assistants. 

The need for dental assistants in North Dakota may be even higher. According to a 2017 survey from the North Dakota Dental Association (NDAA), 92% of members thought there was a shortage of dental assistants, and 60% planned to hire a dental assistant within the next year. Of the 70% of NDAA member dentists who said they had attempted to hire a dental assistant in the previous year, 40% were unsuccessful at filling the dental assisting position. 

The entry-level dental assisting program at DHS will not only put high school students on a career path, it will also help increase the number of qualified dental assistants in the area. 

Educating entry-level dental assistants 

Ms. Johnson says the students in the entry-level dental assisting program have become driven and disciplined in their studies. “It is extremely rewarding to watch the students grow as they learn more about the position and the skills it encompasses,” she says. 

The students have already begun to make a difference through their volunteer and community service activities. Already, students have volunteered with Dickinson-area dentist Dr. Maria “Duffy” Meyer (known as “Dr. Duffy”) and her staff to visit elementary schools and help with the sealant program. 

“So far, the students have gone to three elementary schools to assist those administering this program,” Ms. Johnson explains, adding that the students have been warmly welcomed by Dr. Duffy’s staff, school administrators, teachers and students. 

Along with community service, students have been gaining experience in dental clinics. Ms. Johnson built on the relationships she had with local dentists to make this opportunity possible. 

In the past years, DHS worked with nearby dental offices to allow students to job shadow as part of the health sciences classes; dentists also participated in the health sciences program by coming to the classroom as guest speakers. Dr. Duffy had participated in the health sciences curriculum, and Ms. Johnson reached out to her regarding the dental assisting program. 

“Dr. Duffy was very knowledgeable and willing to help the students in any way possible,” Ms. Johnson recounts. From there, word of mouth helped establish more connections and opportunities. 

“Dr. Duffy talked about the program to Dr. Galster and Dr. Sticka,” Ms. Johnson explains. “Then, it was a matter of setting up the paperwork with their dental office and working with DANB on establishing the curriculum.” 

The community behind the program 

Ms. Johnson says the idea for the dental assisting program began when DHS started transitioning to a career academy. “The President of the National Career Center Academy Coalition, Jay Steele, helped me contact teachers at Waipahu High School in Hawaii,” she explains. “I began looking at the different health sciences pathways they had for their students.” 

Waipahu High School had a pharmacy technician program in conjunction with the local community college, and Ms. Johnson says this inspired establishment of the dental assisting program at DHS. From there, many others in the dental community helped bring the DHS dental assisting program to fruition. 

In addition to the Dickinson-area dentists, the DHS dental assisting program was made possible through the support of several other individuals, including DHS Principal Kevin Hoherz; Dr. Marcus Lewton, Director at Roughrider Area Career Technology Center; Mike Little, MBA, Executive Director of the North Dakota Dental Foundation; and William Sherwin, Executive Director of the North Dakota Dental Association. 

Ms. Johnson says she reached out to Mr. Little for guidance, and he connected her with DANB’s Executive Director Cynthia Durley, M.Ed., MBA, and with DANB’s Education Consultant Carolyn Breen, Ed.D., CDA, RDA, RDH. North Dakota Dental Foundation Board Secretary and former DANB Board Chair and DALE Foundation Board President Carla Schneider, CDA, RDA, also provided valuable guidance. 

The most challenging part of establishing the dental assisting program, according to Ms. Johnson, was getting started. “We had a good idea, but needed guidance to put it into practice effectively,” she says, noting that there are numerous people to thank: 

“Cindy Durley and Carolyn Breen have been critical in getting this program off the ground and helping it be successful. We appreciate all their expertise, connections and kindness. 

“Also, our dental offices that are participating have been welcoming, flexible and engaged,” Ms. Johnson continues. “If they had not been willing to take students during COVID, the program couldn’t have been successful. 

“I want specially to send a shoutout to Dr. Duffy Meyer at High Plains Dental. Dr. Duffy is also a Trustee on the North Dakota Dental Association Board of Trustees. She was key in starting the program and involving other dentists. I also would like to thank Dr. Shannon Galster at Dickinson Dental Center and Dr. Samuel Sticka at Sticka Dental Clinic for their willingness to participate in the program. 

“My administrators, Kevin Hoherz, Principal of Dickinson High School, and Kevin Nelson, Career Technical Director at Roughrider Area Career and Technical Center, have been supportive from the beginning. Also, North Dakota Career and Technical Education Director and Executive Officer Wade Sick and Tracy Becker, Supervisor for Trade, Industry & Technical Education for the North Dakota Department of Career and Technical Education, have encouraged it,” Ms. Johnson concludes. “It has been a true team effort!”