NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana State University's dental school will be giving entertainment and check-ups to about 180 students from a New Orleans elementary school Friday. It's LSU's 11th year in Give Kids a Smile Day , and its largest event so far.

Events nationwide have helped more than 5.5 million underserved children since 2003, according to the American Dental Association Foundation. Programs in Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama expect to provide dental education and, when possible, free checkups and even further care to more than 17,000 children this year, said the foundation's president, Dr. Bill Calnon.

That includes about 9,400 children in Louisiana, 3,800 in Georgia, 2,700 in Mississippi and 1,400 in Alabama.

About 6,000 are kindergarten and primary students in rural Louisiana's 23 Delta parishes, said Amy Karam, program director for a rural anti-obesity initiative called EatMoveGrow .

"Many kids we come across, we're providing them with their first toothbrush in first or second grade, and teaching them to brush their teeth," Karam, of Baton Rouge, said in a phone interview. "I'm saying this as someone who did not know how to brush properly when we began this program."

She said she needed a gum transplant because sawing a hard brush back and forth had worn away her gums. Now she uses a soft brush, moving it in circles.

Tooth decay is the nation's most common chronic childhood disease, affecting five times as many children as asthma and seven times more than hay fever, according to a U.S. Surgeon General's report .

Karam said her program has developed a dental health curriculum that meets state and Common Core requirements, including lessons for science, math, English, art and physical education.

About 6,000 children in 40 schools get information, toothbrushes and toothpaste. Many children ask for brushes for siblings, Kamas said. She quoted one principal as saying many kids in her school would find sparkly toothpaste an exciting Christmas present.

And, she said, with volunteers from LSU's dental school, the state Office of Public Health and private doctors, EatMoveGrow provides checkups for 600 to 700 students in the 10 highest-need parishes. Those dentists can apply fluoride varnish or a sealant if needed.

Non-dentist volunteers lead waiting children in exercises — for instance, wiggling to show how dental floss should be moved between teeth — and have a dragon puppet with huge teeth for brushing practice. When volunteers explain that people need to spit out toothpaste after brushing, dragon Jack Plaque spits water at kids. That's always a big hit, Karam said.

Children with cavities or abscesses get letters to help their parents get in touch with their own dentists. EatMoveGrow also helps families find dentists. That can be a problem for Medicaid-eligible children, Karam said, noting that about half Louisiana's 840,000 eligible children get dental care through Medicaid each year.

On its own, LSU Health New Orleans School of Dentistry has given dental screenings to about 800 New Orleans children since 2008, said Janice Townsend, chair of the pediatric dental department.

It chooses a different school each year, she said in a phone interview. This year, it's Esperanza Charter School, chosen partly because many students live in areas that flooded in August.

The dental school closes classes so all 130 dental students, 60 dental hygiene students and eight pediatric dental residents can participate, supervised by faculty members and volunteer private dentists, Townsend said.

The third- through fifth-graders will be divided into four groups, cycling through four activities between 8 a.m. and the healthy lunch that ends the session. While one group is being screened and getting their teeth cleaned and possibly sealed, another group will watch a magician. A third group will either join NFL Play 60 physical activities and drills or play carnival games, if their parents didn't give permission for exercise. The fourth group will get dental health lessons faculty and students, led by the Tooth Fairy and her friends Tooth, Paste and Sparkle. There's also a dress-up photo booth.

Usually at least half the children need further treatment, Townsend said. Their parents get an information sheet and a follow-up phone call.

LSU also got one of three ADA Foundation grants this year to cover remedial dental care for low-income, uninsured children. Winners were chosen from 38 applicants, the foundation said.