Mariah Scarborough has feared the dentist ever since her father rented a spoof horror movie about a psychotic practitioner and showed it to her as a child. Once she even ran out in terror while getting a cavity filled.

"Ugh, the drill," she said, thinking back.

So June 14 represented a bit of closure for Scarborough, now 20, who completed a dental training academy for high school students at the University of Minnesota by conducting an oral examination of a fellow student. Scarborough, who lives in Minneapolis, had invited her father to be her practice patient, but it turns out she isn't the only Scarborough who fears the dental chair.

"My dad," she said, shaking her head.

Scarborough is part of the first class completing the university's dental academy program, which selects bright high school students from low-income backgrounds and gives them basic dentistry training, along with support toward earning their diplomas. The program seeks to promote dentistry as a career, especially to minorities who would be more likely to go back and practice in their underserved, urban communities.

"This group of students is really isolated from opportunities because they live in poverty," said Naty Lopez, assistant dean of the U's School of Dentistry. "They are not told that they could become doctors or nurses or dentists."

Minnesota may soon need more dentists -- with nearly half the licensed practitioners being 54 or older -- but there are already shortages in the central and north Minneapolis neighborhoods from which these students came. St. Paul's central and riverside neighborhoods also are short of dentists.

The program, which started in January, featured Saturday classes that taught basic math, science and English in addition to dentistry -- along with games designed to spur deductive logic and reasoning.

Lopez said the program was designed so it wasn't overwhelming but rather encouraging for students in minority groups with high dropout rates. Scarborough is American Indian, a racial group with the state's lowest rate of high school students -- 40 percent -- graduating in the typical four-year timeframe.

"We want to at least help some of them finish high school and have dreams," Lopez said.

Scarborough's path through high school was disrupted by the birth of her son 18 months ago. The wild spirit in her dreams wanted her to follow in her father's footsteps and be part of a rock 'n' roll band -- jamming on her bass guitar. The practical mother in her knows she needs a college degree and a career to support her family.

She hopes to attend the University of Minnesota and earn a degree as a dental therapist, a relatively new position in Minnesota that is between a dentist and a dental technician.

Overcoming her fear was easier when she received a white dental lab coat in one of the first classes.

"I took a look in the mirror and I was like, 'Wow, I could totally see myself doing this,'" she said.

Whereas Scarborough has the smiling chairside manner of a dentist, 17-year-old Khadijah Allen has the steady hand of an old pro. At a class in May, the Minneapolis junior won a contest among the students as the fastest at cleaning teeth on dummy patients. Of course, it wasn't perfect. Under time pressure, she yanked so hard on the dummy's jaw that it pulled wide open.

"When you work with a patient," she deadpanned, "you can't do that."

Allen said she looks forward to studying dentistry in college and the psychological aspects of putting patients at ease.

The students were all smiles earlier this month as they practiced on their patients but experienced unexpected challenges that day, too. Female Muslims in the class fumbled with masks and goggles as they tried to tighten them around their hijabs.

Scarborough peered with a mirror into the mouth of 18-year-old Faiso Haji until her patient put up a hand and pushed her away.

"Ahhhhhh," Haji said, as Scarborough pulled the mirror from deep within her patient's mouth.

"Sorry," Scarborough replied with a smile.

At least nobody seemed scared of the dentist, and that was a good first step.

"Who," Lopez asked, "would want to be something that everyone is afraid of?"

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744