Palo Alto College launches dental hygiene clinic for students, South Side community

Students are on track to become dental hygienists; clinic will be available for residents in spring

SAN ANTONIO – Palo Alto College is taking the next steps to help students find a pathway to the dental field and provide affordable oral care for families and residents on the South Side.

The college launched its dental hygiene program in September, and held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the newly established clinic on Friday.

Alma Navarro is part of the first class of Palo Alto students to study in the new facility.

“I always wanted to be a health care provider,” Navarro said. “Helping people with their oral health is the right choice for me.”

Navarro moved from Mexico to San Antonio five years ago with her family and wanted to get into the dental field. She is one of 30 students in the inaugural cohort for the dental program at Palo Alto, which is a two-year accredited program.

“It’s a win-win. The aspect of being able to provide care to patients at very low costs while we educate our students,” said Diane Wilson, director of dental hygiene for Palo Alto College in the Alamo Colleges District.

Getting proper and inexpensive oral care on the South Side is a challenge for many families.

“Most of the time people do not seek dental care unless they are in pain,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the demand for dental hygienists has soared since COVID. That’s why Palo Alto felt the clinic was imperative, not only for their students, but for the community.

“What we have found over the years and what science tells us is there’s a direct correlation between overall health and oral health,” Wilson said. “We can oftentimes determine other possible illnesses that are occurring in a patient via an oral exam. The first thing that comes to mind, which is predominant, is diabetes.”

Palo Alto College officials said 1,500 students were interested in enrolling in the dental program. A total of 800 qualified and only 30 were selected for this first class, indicating the high demand for hygienist in the critical field. In an effort to help with tuition and treatments costs, Bank of America donated $350,000 to the initiative.

Students will work in an immersive environment for hands-on training while offering low- or no-cost clinical services to better the overall health of the South Side community.

The clinic also features a collaborative classroom, a state-of-the-art radiology lab and 30 dental cubicles with advanced X-ray units.

The clinic aims to offer dental hygiene treatment to residents by this spring, and anticipates serving up to 1,000 uninsured or under-insured children and adults by the third year of operation.

“We do have the best quality equipment that’s out there, along with the technology that is available in dentistry,” Wilson said.

In just two years, students will become accredited dental hygienists, but for Navarro, it means more than a degree.

“College goes beyond the classroom, so we’ll be able to help the community directly and improve their oral health care,” Navarro said.

About the Authors:

RJ Marquez is co-host of KSAT News Now and reports for Good Morning San Antonio. He's been at KSAT since 2010 and covered a variety of stories and events across the San Antonio area. He also covers the Spurs for on-air and digital platforms, including his Spurs newsletter. RJ has reported stories for KSAT Explains.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.