SIKESTON -- Higher education funds approved by the state Legislature last week will enable Southeast Missouri State University-Sikeston to remodel a classroom for its distance dental hygiene program set to begin this fall.
Lawmakers gave final approval May 7 to legislation that will take $350 million over six years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority to finance dozens of building projects for public colleges and universities.
Among those projects includes $173,000 for Southeast Missouri State University's distance learning dental hygiene clinic in Sikeston. The program is a partnership between Southeast and Missouri Southern State University in Joplin.
"We have had a lot of interest in the program from prospective students," said Debbi Gerecke, director of Distance Dental Hygiene Program for Missouri Southern State University which has an office on the Sikeston campus.
Gerecke said 130 students have expressed interest in the program, and that includes both those who are finishing up their prerequisites to start the program this fall and many who are still working on their prerequisites.
An associate's degree program, the dental hygiene program requires 30 hours of prerequisite courses before applying for the program, and all can be taken through Southeast at Sikeston, said Gerecke, who has been a dental hygienist for 29 years.
The room set aside for the clinic at the Sikeston campus will have eight dental chairs with all the equipment and separate from that will be three radiology units, Gerecke said. Two interactive television classrooms -- one for the dental hygiene program and one as a backup for the program -- will be available.
The concept of the program began in 2003 when the Missouri Dental Association president asked all of the dental hygiene programs already in existence to consider offering some type of distance education to help fill the needs of the rural population and areas facing shortages of dental hygienists, Gerecke recalled.
Areas with the greatest shortages of dental hygienists were determined through information from the Department of Economics. Southeast Missouri was one of three areas with the greatest need for dental hygienists; the other two were central and northeast Missouri, she said.
As a result Rolla and Sikeston were chosen as locations, and Southeast Missouri State University partnered with Missouri Southern State University, Gerecke explained.
"The whole idea is to bring education to rural areas so people can get an education without having to relocate," Gerecke said.
Funding for sustainability of the program was received through Missouri Southern University's based budget; equipment for the program's classroom was purchased in 2006 through a congressional grant. With the recent approval of MOHELA funding, work to remodel the classroom on the Sikeston campus can begin, she said.
Now the program is hoping to receive accreditation. The Commission on Dental Accreditation conducted a site visit for the program on May 4.
"We will know this week of any recommendations they've made for us, and by mid-July we'll know the determination of the accreditation status -- whether it's provisional or full approval," Gerecke said.
When the program's application deadline ended in January, Gerecke received 13 applications for the 10 available spots, she said.
"As soon as we know something definite (about accreditation), we'll have a selection team select students according to our main site's program," Gerecke said.
In addition to Southeast in Sikeston, local projects to be funded through MOHELA include $2 million for the replacement of Southeast Missouri Health Network facilities in Kennett and New Madrid and $2 million for a plant science greenhouse at the University of Missouri Delta Research Center in Portageville.