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Students lined up last week not for lunch or dismissal, but to see a dentist in a Lexington Park Elementary School classroom.

The school arranged via permission slips from parents for dentists to perform routine dental screens on children in fourth and fifth grades.

“We’re looking to see what state the kids’ mouths are in, how well they’re taking care of them,” Cheryl Fryer said. The dentistry professor at Howard University visited St. Mary’s with her colleague, professor Stephen Harden, thanks to a program from a community group in neighboring Charles County.

The dentists said they saw a range of tooth care at Lexington Park. Fryer said generally children need to spend more time brushing their teeth, although she acknowledged that can be hard sometimes.

The dentists screened about 80 students at Lexington Park last week, and at least that many more from George Washington Carver Elementary School on Thursday. Dentists were expected to visit Park Hall Elementary School and Green Holly Elementary School this week.

Harden said keeping teeth healthy is important, but in addition to financial issues that might keep families from going to a dentist regularly, there can also be generational problems.

The dentist said he heard from one child who told his grandmother, whom he lived with, about a toothache. The child said he was told it was not important since he would lose his baby teeth eventually.

Harden said proper care of baby teeth is important and can lead to healthier permanent teeth.

Student Doris Pineda, 10, said she goes to the dentist every six months for checkups and has not had any problems with her teeth. She enjoyed the break from class, and said that the dentists were nice and just asked about how often she brushed and other questions about her teeth.

“They just looked around,” Bryan Flores, 10, said.

The fifth-grader said that it was a little weird to see a dentist while at school, but that his teacher explained that it is to help catch problems that might go unchecked in some children at the school.

The screenings come courtesy of the Bel Alton High School Alumni Association Community Development Corp., a nonprofit established by the school’s alumni to help low-income individuals and families improve their quality of life. The group, which operates out of a renovated former African-American high school in Charles County, has a history of community advocacy.

Willie Winfree, a practicing dentist and dental professor at Howard University, other Howard professors and members of Winfree’s staff provide the screenings.

Ruby Thomas helps with outreach for the dental project. She said the Bel Alton group is expanding its help to St. Mary’s schools this year, and has hopes to grow into Calvert County, too.

The clinic received a two-year, $250,000 state grant to improve dental services to children in Southern Maryland.

Dental care for children became a priority in the state after a child from Prince George’s County died in 2007 from an untreated tooth abscess. Health agencies and schools began a push for proper dental hygiene and checkups.

Although the Maryland Children’s Health Program — MCHIP — provides health insurance, including dental care, to children whose families qualify based on income eligibility, many families don’t apply or do not use the available care.

Kelly Hall, executive director of elementary and Title I schools in St. Mary’s, said the dentists send home notes with the children outlining the condition of their teeth, and whether they should follow up with a dentist.

If their family does not already have a regular dentist, the students are invited to visit the new clinic at Bel Alton.

Hall also arranged to have students from the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center’s dental program assist during the screenings.

“It is great to be able to assist in making sure kids have the dental hygiene they need,” Carly Colvin, 17, said this week while sitting in at the Lexington Park Elementary screenings.

The Leonardtown High School senior said that this kind of experience will be valuable to her when she goes on to higher education and eventually to a career as a dental hygienist.

jyeatman@somdnews.com