Skip to content

Central Nine Students Learn Oral Health, Inclusive Care

A young woman in blue scrubs works on a mouth model with a young man who has an intellectual and developmental disability.

By 8:30 a.m., the dental careers classroom at Central Nine Career Center is filled with scrub-wearing high school students. They’ve turned one side of the room into a seating area with a makeshift banquet table in the shape of a U, adorned with cloth napkins carefully folded into Christmas trees. On the other side of the massive room, tables are arranged in small pods dedicated to a specific activity: mouth models with toothbrushes, medical gowns and masks for “dress up” and oral health worksheets for coloring. Interspersed between all of this are oral health teaching materials, sterilization equipment and three dental operatories, where students learn how to use equipment.

Soon, a bus from Charlene's Angels, an adult day center that supports and enriches the lives of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, will arrive. The “angels,” as founder Charlene Guthrie calls them, have been visiting the students at Central Nine Career Center for 12 years, and it’s a ritual they anticipate.

A large group of adults with disabilities sits at tables in a large classroom surrounded by students wearing scrubs.
Students and Charlene's Angels gather in a classroom for welcomes and introductions.

For Jan Tunis, a dental hygienist and the instructor for Central Nine Career Center’s dental careers program, this annual event is personal.

“My daughter, Josie, has a cognitive disability, so I know full well the types of challenges many people with disabilities face when it comes to dental care,” Tunis said. “Because Josie used to be one of Charlene’s angels, I knew we had a unique opportunity for oral health education—for the angels and the students.”

After introductions, students and angels practiced tooth brushing, donned personal protective equipment (e.g., gowns, gloves and masks) and explored dental operatories—all without fear or expectations. Tunis sees this as a way to demystify the dental office, make it less scary and help people who may have significant sensory or mobility challenges learn what to expect. It’s also a great way to encourage the next generation of oral health professionals to overcome stigma and meet people where they are.

This connection between workforce development and oral health equity for people with disabilities grabbed the Delta Dental Foundation’s (DDF) attention. In 2023, the DDF awarded Central Nine Career Center $35,000, which helped fund a third teaching operatory for the classroom. According to Tunis, this addition has made a huge difference.

“I generally teach 30 to 32 students at a time, and only three are allowed in each operatory,” Tunis said. “Having the third chair increases teaching capacity by 50%.”

Group photo of five women standing around a man sitting in a dental chair.
From left to right: Charlene Guthrie, Brooklynne Drew, Jen Anderson, Anthony, Jan Tunis, Michelle Augustine.

Central Nine Career Center provides active, career-based learning in an experiential environment for students. High school students drive or are bussed in for morning or afternoon sessions every weekday, and career programs range from construction trades to culinary arts.

As part of the dental careers pathway program, students spend one to two years completing clinical and lab training that prepares them for the National Entry Level Dental Assistant exam. In the process, they can also earn certifications in radiation health and safety and infection control. This means that students will have the certifications and licensing they need to be employed as a dental assistant right after graduation—or the tools they need to pursue post-secondary education or degrees in dentistry.

“I was always interested in medicine, but I realized that I just wanted to handle the mouth,” said Brooklynne Drew, a senior at Perry Meridian High School and a second-year student at Central Nine Career Center. Drew learned about Central Nine Career Center from her sister, who’d loved her experience there. “I plan to go to college for dental hygiene, and this gives me a head start.”

A teenage girl with long dirty blonde hair wearing black scrubs smiles at the camera.
Central Nine Career Center student Brooklynne Drew.

Students like Drew can also complete an externship at a dental office, where they shadow providers, learn how to appropriately clean operatories and sterilize equipment, and more.

“The externship is my favorite,” Drew said. “Mostly because it’s a hands-on experience, but also because you get to see everything you learned in the classroom in a real-world setting.”

By the end of the day, everyone is comfortable with one another. The students have turned donning personal protective equipment into a who-can-do-it-the-quickest competition. There’s a person sitting in each dental chair smiling as students demonstrate the handpieces. In the other half of the room where the banquet table was initially set up, music blares as students and angels alike bust a move on the makeshift dance floor. It wouldn’t be wrong to describe the vibes as “rowdy.”

It's this kind of energy that reinvigorates Tunis.

“I like to think everyone has learned something that’s changed them,” Tunis said. In the background, her daughter Josie laughs.

Students and Charlene's Angels dance in the classroom.
At the end of the day, Central Nine Career Center students and Charlene's Angels have a classroom dance party.

Sign Up to Receive Grant News & Updates   Subscribe