Dental assistant class

From left: Silvia Ramirez, Dekedryn Butler, Paola Rangel (in chair), and Raeley Johnson demonstrate patient care skills they are learning in Palestine High School’s dental assistant program, which enables them to earn certification and jobs – even before graduating.

Wearing braces, Dekedryn Butler smiles all the time. He's happy his teeth are straightening, but the personable Palestine High School senior has something more to smile about: His future in dentistry. 

By earning a Registered Dental Assistant certification while still in high school, Butler, 17, can earn $12 an hour right after high school and more soon after. He also can qualify for two- or four-year college programs that will lead to dental careers that can pay, depending on location, $70,000 a year.

Butler is one of 51 students enrolled in the dental assistant practicum, which requires PHS students to complete 120 hours of clinical observation. “I love seeing people leave the office with new smiles,” he said. 

The high school’s career technical education (CTE) dental assistant program, made possible with a community-wide team of dental professionals and educators, is opening doors for students like Butler, who looks forward to studying dentistry, or even orthodontics. 

Registered Dental Assistant Rhonda Anderson knows from experience. In 1979, she earned dental assistant certification at PHS under Doyle Campbell’s health science program, starting her career before graduating. Today, she works for Drs. Herrington and Hernandez in Palestine. 

Anderson also volunteers two Fridays a month to teach the budding dental assistants and prepare them for the workforce. “My goal is to give them the reality of what it's like to work in a dental office,” she said.

Brooke Davis, 16, plans to study dental hygiene after graduating. The program requires two years of college courses and two more of dental hygiene; certification as a dental assistant improves her chances of getting into the program. Her clinical work, twice a week, includes observing extractions, crowns, and fillings at Dr. Ellen Weber’s dental practice. “It’s teaching me valuable skills,” she said.

The health careers program offers four other certifications: phlebotomy technician, electrocardiograph (EKG) technician, patient care technician, and certified nursing assistant. 

A former trauma nurse at Memorial Hermann Hospital-Texas Medical Center in Houston, Bristow said she relies on support from local professionals, including Dr. Thomas Witte, who provided the program’s foundation. Anderson and Drs. Jay Herrington and Junior Hernandez teach and mentor students, including graduates attending college. “They’ve all been so overwhelmingly supportive,” Bristow said.

Bristow focuses on following certification guidelines and preparing students for the workforce. “The goal is for students to go to work before they graduate,” she said. She credits Sara Johnson, the high school’s career and technical education counselor, for adeptly arranging students’ schedules so they can attend clinical work off-campus.

Dr. Witte, who has practiced dentistry in Palestine for 25 years, has interviewed graduates of online programs, but does not hire them. “I’ve been very impressed with everything Palestine is doing to help students get out of high school and earn more than a minimum wage job,” he said.

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