Smiling shyly, 9-year-old Morgan Pohl tossed a heap of clothes into the washer and carefully added detergent to the top of the machine. She hit the start button and headed off to lunch in the next room — the cafeteria at Doull Elementary School in southwest Denver.
Doing laundry at school is a weekly ritual for the pony-tailed third-grader, who changes her shirt five times a day at because she has a medical condition — polymicrogyria — that causes her to drool constantly.
Morgan is just one beneficiary of the school’s new laundry room, tucked inside a former storage closet off the lunchroom. School staff also use the appliances there to launder clothes for other students who need it, plus sheets for the preschool sleeping mats, and jerseys for after-school basketball teams. Eventually, they hope to expand access to parents as well.
“The self-confidence [from] having clean clothes really cannot be understated,” said Jo Carrigan, Doull’s principal. “When students feel good and feel proud, they’re here ready to learn, they’re not worried about … so-and-so just said my clothes smell like cigarettes.”
Washers and dryers are popping up in schools around the country these days, often borne out of educators’ hopes that free, convenient laundry facilities will help keep kids in school instead of at home out of embarrassment over dirty clothes. Like social workers charged with tracking down truant students or free bus passes to ease school commutes, it’s one more weapon in the battle against absenteeism, which has become a growing priority in many states, including Colorado.
There’s no official count of schools that offer students or families access to on-site laundry facilities — but at least a half-dozen in Colorado do. Five schools in the state, including Doull, received washers and dryers this year through a grant program run by the Whirlpool Corp.
Vantage Point High School, an alternative school in Northglenn, installed two sets of washers and dryers in December after receiving a grant from the district’s foundation. In April, Wyatt Academy, a Denver charter school, will open a free “laundromat” in its Northeast Denver building, paid for through school fundraisers.
There are also a couple Denver schools — Amesse and Johnson elementaries — on the monthly route of a free mobile laundry truck run by the nonprofit, Bayaud Enterprises. In April, the truck will add McGlone Academy to its roster of stops. Some Colorado schools laundry assistance on a more informal basis, letting occasional students use washers and dryers normally designated for school culinary programs or custodial staff.
School leaders who have sought laundry equipment for their buildings say the machines can make a big difference for cash-strapped families facing time-consuming trips to the laundromat.
Alan Hollenbeck, principal of Vantage Point High School, said the building’s washers and dryers are used by students about twice a week, while parents who attend evening GED or English classes at the school use them almost every night.
Hollenbeck was at a conference in 2017 when he first heard about the concept of in-school laundry facilities. He thought it was brilliant, a practical way to support students already facing long odds. Of the 350 students on his campus, around three dozen are homeless. Some have been expelled from traditional schools and others are in their late teens or early 20s and living on their own.
While there’s been significant community support for the project at Vantage Point — donated labor from contractors and contributions of laundry detergent from a local church — Hollenbeck has also heard a few murmurs of dissent: “Why are we putting in laundromats for kids?”
“A lot of people just don’t understand a lot of times our teaching goes beyond the academic piece,” he said. “Teaching kids how to do laundry is a life skill.”
At Doull Elementary, that’s especially true for Morgan, who needs a steady stream of clean shirts to maintain her personal hygiene.
“It’s increased her confidence … She has friends now that she probably didn’t have in the past,” said her special education teacher Lynn Malie. “If there’s a big drool spot nobody wants to come near you.”
Although Morgan can’t speak, she communicates using pre-recorded messages programmed into her iPad. On a recent morning in her classroom, she tapped the device and a girl’s voice said, “It’s time to wash my clothes. I only have five clean shirts.”
Before showing off the school’s new laundry room, Morgan gamely led the way to the “dungeon,” the dank school basement where an old washer and dryer sit in a cluttered storage room.
“Creepy, creepy, creepy,” Malie said, as Morgan grinned in recognition.
This is where Morgan, and a teacher or aide, used to do her laundry — often coming down the steep concrete stairs four or five times per load to check on the malfunctioning dryer.
Last summer, grants for school washers and dryers came to Colorado through Whirlpool’s “Care Counts” program. The company partnered with Teach For America Colorado to pick the five recipients, and Rob Suglia, Doull’s assistant principal and a Teach For America alumni, applied.
Doull, where 93 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, received the appliances plus a $10,000 grant in January. Two other Denver schools, one school in Colorado Springs, and one in Pueblo also received laundry equipment and grants.
Doull staff eventually hope to invite parents to do their laundry at the school and have pondered the idea of a small-scale laundry service similar to the Friday beverage cart operated by the school’s special education students.
For now, they know the new equipment is making a big difference to students like Morgan and others who, in the past, faced a choice between wearing soiled, smelly clothes or a clean but ill-fitting school T-shirt.
“It’s truly been the most incredible gift,” Carrigan said.