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A promising career path: the journey to a rewarding career can begin in high school, and at an Ohio career center, the dental assisting program is the first step for many students. The path may then lead to training for an expanded function role or to dental hygienist training.

The dental assisting program at Cuyahoga Valley Career Center (CVCC) in Brecksville, Ohio, is a highly successful cluster-based health program that is marked by high enrollment, retention and placement rates for its students. The performance of the students in the program consistently exceeds state benchmarks. These are some of the factors that earned the Cuyahoga Valley Career Center dental assisting program a designation as a national "Promising Program" by the National Dissemination Center for Career and Technical Education.

Among the replicable aspects that helped the CVCC dental assisting program achieve Promising Program status are the multiple career pathways; articulation agreements with local two-year and four-year postsecondary institutions; strong industry partnerships; effective strategies for enrolling, retaining and placing nontraditional and special needs students; and a strong community service component.

Lisa Sowinski is the CVCC dental assisting instructor, and she says she was both thrilled and honored to receive the Promising Program designation from the National Dissemination Center, adding that, "The kids were so excited!"

CVCC serves eight associated school districts in Ohio, which in turn serve 25 communities. The career center provides career and technical support for pre-kindergarten through postsecondary, but Sowinski's program is made up of 11th and 12th graders.

She is the only instructor in the dental assisting program--although there are other teachers for subjects such as anatomy and physiology--and she has 24 juniors and 24 seniors.

She credits the support she receives from the school and the staff for helping her maintain a quality program for her students. "I have so much support from my colleagues and from the administration," says Sowinski. "My fellow teachers are super to work with."


Students in the dental assisting program learn chairside assisting, which includes identifying and transferring instruments, preparing tray setups, mixing dental materials, and exposing, processing and mounting X-rays. They study dental laboratory, in which they pour, trim and box diagnostic models; articulate models; construct base plates and bite block; construct acrylic temporary crowns and bridges; and prepare dies, carve wax patterns, invest and cast. They also learn computerized office procedures utilizing SoftDent Software. Their courses include anatomy, bacteriology, pathology, pharmacology and radiology.

With such a broad curriculum, Sowinski believes that it would be almost impossible to complete it all in only one year, but "two years is perfect."

As juniors, the students learn infection control, sterilization, laboratory procedures and fourhanded dentistry (two hands belong to the dentist and two to the assistant). They learn about the eight different dental specialties and get CPR and first aid training. They also learn employability skills and even do mock job interviews.

"Then as seniors," says Sowinski, "they eat, drink and sleep business administration and radiology."

In November, the seniors go to Case Western Reserve University where they work as assistants for the student dentists. It's a two-week unpaid internship that provides invaluable experience for the CVCC students.

"When the students first go, they are scared to death," Sowinski says. "But then they don't want to come back because they find out that they excel there."

The students have the opportunity to go through all eight of the dental specialties, and Sowinski explains how they might be working on root canals one day and on fillings the next day. After that, they might work with an orthodontist, then with an oral surgeon. She has found that the student dentists love having her students there because it gives them an extra set of hands, and they soon find that those hands have the skills to truly assist them in their work.

"By senior year," Sowinski says, "they know everything they need to know to work in a dentist's office, but every dentist is different, and they find that out when they go to work with the student dentists."

There they have to learn flexibility. They may see that one dentist does a procedure differently than another dentist, and that's okay. It's the same procedure, just using a different technique.

The students have to keep journals in which they describe the cases they work on each day, which helps Sowinski follow up on their work. It also gives the students a record they can take home to show their parents. The dentists at Case Western add their comments in the student journals, and often these say things such as, "She is well rounded, excellent with dental skills and people skills."

"The students come from my classroom very well prepared to go to Case and apply what they have learned," notes Sowinski, adding that often the students are asked to come back.

Case Western is appreciative of the skill and professionalism that the CVCC students exhibit, and Sowinski is grateful for the opportunities the university gives her students. She has high praise for the university, saying that they are" ... great to work with, absolutely unbelievable."


In January, seniors who have an A average and good attendance can go on early placement working in a dentist's office. A student with a B average or less than perfect attendance will have to wait until the end of February.

Sowinski stresses professionalism and a good work ethic in her program and sees this as another opportunity to teach her students important life skills. "It's a good incentive to make sure they're on time and on task so that they can go into a job," she explains.

Her seniors also do special projects such as creating their own dental office. This is a 300-point project that ends up filling two five-inch hinders.

Once a month she organizes an activity that includes both her junior and senior students. Sometimes it may be just for fun, as when she and her husband--and 48 kids--go cosmic bowling or out to dinner. Others are community service projects such as answering the phones for the public television station's pledge week. They also feed the homeless, and then they have lunch together. Sowinski says that after seeing how little others may have, "You wouldn't believe how thankful the students are for what they have."

The end of the year is marked by a pinning and capping ceremony--a lovely event featuring candlelight, a harpist and flautist. The juniors are capped by the seniors and Sowinski pins the seniors. The event takes four or five months to plan, and the students raise the funds for it themselves.


Every other year, Sowinski takes her students to Chicago for the mid-winter dental conference held there. The students get to do a lot of networking and learn about the advantages and disadvantages of new products. The seniors sit in on continuing education courses and then do a report.

The year that they don't go to Chicago, Sowinski and her students go to Baltimore where they visit the University of Maryland dental school and the Samuel D. Harris Dental Museum. Like the pinning and capping ceremony, the funds for the trips are raised by the students through car washes, candy sales and an entertainment book. A lot of the students have never even been out of the state of Ohio before, so the trips are educational and exciting for them in many ways.

During one week in March, both juniors and seniors participate in the Tooth Fairy Program for preschoolers and kindergarteners in the eight school districts served by CVCC. Working from their own script, each class does a puppet show for the young children--and of course the Tooth Fairy pays a visit. The Tooth Fairy is actually one of the students in a prom dress; she is elected each year by the other students. Another popular character will appear each year--maybe Sponge Bob Square Pants or Scooby Doo--because Sowinski rents a character's costume each year. The children get goody bags with coloring books, crayons and a toothbrush, and the parents have the opportunity to ask questions they might have, such as, "When will my child lose his first tooth?"

Sowinski comments that, "Students feel like a million bucks when they can answer the parents' questions."

If all of this sounds like a huge undertaking for one instructor, that's because it is.

"It's a lot of work," says Sowinski, "but so worth it. It may be a 24-hour-a-day job, but I love it."

She also spends time filling out a lot of paperwork because, as she puts it, "I'm big on scholarships."

Students who complete the dental assisting program at CVCC may continue to work in the offices of the dentists they went to work for during the summer (Sowinski tries to place them all in summer jobs), or they may decide to continue with their education. Sowinski says CVCC is known as one of the area's "hidden treasures," so employers feel confident in hiring their graduates. Sometimes dentists hate to lose such valued employees and tell her they wish she wasn't always pushing college, but the articulation agreements that CVCC has in place, in addition to a $500 tech prep scholarship, help students make the transition to postsecondary education.

Some CVCC students may return to Case Western Reserve University--where they got experience working with the student dentists--for expanded function dental assistant training. Others may go on to Cuyahoga Community College to become dental hygienists.

Whichever path they choose, they have embarked on a promising career with the education they received from CVCC's Promising Program--designated dental assisting program-and its dedicated, hardworking instructor Lisa Sowinski.

Additional Sources of Information

The following organizations have information and resources on opportunities in the field of dentistry for career and technical education students.

The American Dental Association

In addition to its information on dentistry, the American Dental Association's Council on Dental Education also has education and career resources on dental hygiene, dental assisting and dental laboratory technology. For more information, visit

The American Dental Assistants Association

The American Dental Assistants Association supports continuing education, research and scholarship programs in the field. For more information, visit

The Dental Assisting National Board

The Dental Assisting National Board is the nationally recognized certification and credentialing agency for dental assistants. For more information, visit

The American Dental Hygienists' Association

The American Dental Hygienists' Association online has education and career resources that include a list of all dental hygiene programs in the country. For more information, visit

The National Association of Dental Laboratories

For information on dental laboratory technology and on becoming a dental laboratory technician, visit

Health Occupations Students of America

Health Occupations Students of America is the career and technical student organization that promotes career opportunities in the health care industry. For more information, visit
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Title Annotation:Cuyahoga Valley Career Center
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2003
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