It’s a modest but functional space—chairs with swing-arm desks, a flat-screen TV and a lectern under a low-hanging ceiling. In an adjacent room splattered with clay-like material, shelves are lined with molds of teeth, making it look like an arts-and-crafts nook.
A vast majority of the students at this school are young women—single moms, high school graduates, paycheck-to-paycheck workers, people bored with dead-end jobs. Hype is the last thing they need. They didn’t enroll in Exton’s Contemporary Health Career Institute because they were dazzled by soaring promises. They wouldn’t believe them anyway, as many of their lives are already filled with potholes and detours. For them, CHCI is an on-ramp to a fresh start.
Finding steady work in good surroundings with decent pay and benefits is life-changing for CHCI’s graduating dental assistants. Founded in 2006, CHCI accepted its 50th class this month. It offers a low-cost, fast-tracked, fully certified educational program to people wanting to pursue jobs in dentistry. With a CHCI certificate, graduates are qualified to become assistants for orthodontists, periodontists, endodontists and general dentists. They can also work in patient management at front desks or as office managers.
CHCI is a family venture created by Dr. Jonathan Scharf, and housed in his practice, Exton Dental Health Group and the Pennsylvania Center for Cosmetic Dentistry. He and his son, Jeffrey, opened CHCI with $50,000, investing a chunk of time worth double that amount. The elder Scharf designed the 80-hour curriculum himself. For 10 days, each class meets for eight hours. State approved, it’s a nuts-and-bolts program that eliminates a lot of superfluous material that can be overwhelming to students. The goal, Scharf says, was to remove those academic roadblocks. “Many dental assistant programs are one to two years of full-time classes, so people can’t work and go to school,” says Scharf. “I knew we could do this faster.”
With a program cost of less than $3,000, CHCI holds classes on Sundays so they don’t interfere with students’ current jobs. For some, CHCI is free. Thanks to a 2015 grant for $148,000 from the PA Department of Labor and Industry, it has enrolled 48 economically disadvantaged students. “Our school, and being a dental assistant, would be great for many people, but some couldn’t afford to enroll,” says Jeffrey Scharf. “The grant gave us a way to provide them with that opportunity.”
Scharf and CHCI admissions director Vikki Stambaugh worked with community organizations to find students who met the grant’s qualifications. “We also looked for people who, once we taught them the skills, had the personalities and drive to become great dental assistants,” Scharf says.
That led them to some unlikely candidates. One was a Coatesville woman who’d been in subsidized housing but ended up living in her car. The Scharfs and Stambaugh saw her potential. After graduating from CHCI, she got a job as a dental assistant, then bought a house and a car. “She’s the kind of success story we love,” Stambaugh says.
Meghan Bellucci is another example. “At a crossroads” is how she describes her life back in 2015. Then 37 years old, she was an unemployed single mother. She did have a degree in sociology from the University of Delaware, but she left her job as an academic advisor for middle school students. “I needed a career change,” says Bellucci. “I had no experience in dentistry, but I’d worked with patients. That was the part of my job that I enjoyed.”
Bellucci describes CHCI as academically rigorous. Mornings were spent in the classroom; afternoons involved clinical hands-on lessons with patients. The program provides overviews of different dental fields, including general, orthodontics and endodontics.
Bellucci became interested in oral surgery. “There’s a lot more blood than general dentistry,” she says. “But I really like it.”
Stambaugh found Bellucci a job with Main Line Center for Oral and Facial Surgery. “Being a dental assistant is in my wheelhouse of helping and supporting people, which is basically what I did for social work,” she says. “Now, instead of working with troubled kids, I spend my summers pulling their wisdom teeth.”
Stories like Bellucci’s are what motivate Jonathan Scharf. “Self-esteem is one of the biggest things our students discover,” he says. “We teach them one new skill, then another and another. They realize that they accomplished something. Then, they start to believe that they can be successful. Many of our students have never experienced that.”
Scharf could’ve contributed a hefty enough sum to land his name on a fancy dental school, so why create a program for entry-level dental assistants? The answer lies in his childhood. “My father wanted to be a dentist but couldn’t afford dental school,” he says.
Instead, he went into advertising, providing his sons with the economic support he never received. “My dad put my brother and I through dental school so we could do what he couldn’t,” says Scharf. “He never accepted a penny from us, even though we both have successful careers. Dentistry has been very good to me. It’s only right that I give something back.”