Last year, administrators at the A.L. Holmes Academy of Blended Learning struggled to get children to come to school every day. More than half the schools’ students – 60 percent – were chronically absent, missing more than 15 school days, and 160 students were suspended the first half of the school year.
This school year has been different. Absences are down at least 10 percent, and suspensions — which contribute to absences and may be exacerbated by children falling behind — have dropped to 60, school officials reported.
What changed? The school added a washing machine.
Across the country, there has been a growing awareness that making simple adjustments at schools to address students’ basic needs can affect students’ ability to succeed. Having clean clothes, deodorant, feminine products and extra uniforms, clothes, coats and gloves can remove some of the barriers that prevent children — particularly poor children — from fully participating in the classroom.
Most directly, educators have found that providing life essentials encourages attendance, one of the most surefire ways to promote learning and students’ engagement.
Yet Holmes’ addition of an on-site washing machine is an anomaly among Detroit schools, which suffer from the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of the nation’s 100 largest school districts released in June 2016.
In some ways, that is not surprising. Detroit’s main school district has endured decades of inadequate school funding, control by state-appointed emergency managers, and turmoil that has left the city’s public schools among the most challenged in the nation. How can a district lacking books, supplies, and teachers with constantly changing leadership, personnel and philosophies, even get to that level of educational service?
Yet Holmes has done it, and to great effect.
“If we help remove these barriers,” said Tammy Mitchell, Holmes’ principal for three years, “students feel comfortable coming to us and asking for what they need. So they don’t have to avoid school, go to class, and not have clean clothes, deodorant, or not feel good about themselves.”
“It gives them the confidence to be ready to learn. They don’t have to be self-conscious and worried about somebody talking about or bullying them.”
That’s been the experience of Antione Harris, an energetic eighth grader at Holmes, who sometimes loses his clothes and forgets to wash his school and basketball uniforms. The school’s clothes closet and laundry program make him feel wanted, he said.
“It makes me feel comfortable, like I’m welcome at this school,” said Harris, who continued attending the school with his twin brother, Anthony, despite relocating to Warren. “I feel like I’m at home, and that’s why I would choose this school over any other school.”
“Everybody has an opportunity to do something here,” he said.
Lamar Perdue, Holmes’ parent teacher association president, also serves as a hall monitor and is one of the volunteers who washes the students’ clothes and transports them to the laundromat to be dried (the school is hoping for the donation of a dryer). He said he’s noticed the difference the single machine has made.
“They feel uplifted because some of them don’t have,” he said. “When they get a clean uniform, a new uniform, it makes them feel better. I see more smiles and bright attitudes.”
Nearly 58 percent of Detroiters in the main district were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year compared to a national average of 13 percent, the AP report said. The federal government defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days or more in a school year – whether those days out are excused or not.
Children who miss a lot of school tend to be from low-income families, state education data show, which means that many start school already behind.
Education experts say chronic absenteeism, which starts as early as preschool, increases the chances children won’t be able to read sufficiently by third grade; will fail classes in middle school; and will drop out of high school.
Offering students laundry services has caught on in recent years. The idea has worked in cities such as St. Louis, where an elementary school principal appealed to Whirlpool, the washing machine maker, after discovering students weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have clean clothes. Their families didn’t have the money for a washer or a laundromat — and sometimes they lacked water or electricity. When Whirlpool delivered a washer and dryer, attendance and attitudes at the school almost immediately improved, a Whirlpool spokeswoman said.
Wondering if this was a fluke, Whirlpool surveyed 600 teachers with similar concerns and soon after launched its Care Counts laundry program, which donates a washer, dryer, laundry bags and detergent for children to bring laundry to school and get it cleaned. It has been so successful that in the 2016-17 academic year, a survey of teachers around the country about Care Counts reported that 95 percent of participants were more motivated in class, and more likely to interact with peers and participate in extracurricular activities. Besides that, the most at-risk students showed up for school an average of nearly two more weeks than the previous year.
In just a few months after the start of the Care Counts pilot program, more than 1,000 teachers and principals reached out seeking washers and dryers. Today, the laundry program serves nearly 60 schools across the country in 10 cities, and Whirlpool is making plans to expand the program this year, a Whirlpool spokesperson, said.
Washers and dryers have also become a popular request on DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding site that connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help. Holmes obtained its washer through DonorsChoose.org off a request written by Serena Horton, Holmes’ academic engagement administrator. Now, Horton is hoping to get a dryer.
“A lot of times, at the beginning of the school year, everybody wants to donate school supplies,” Horton said. “But being clean, having clean clothing – uniforms, toiletries, and resources to wash the clothing like a washer and detergent – is what really affects attendance.”
“Kids will come to school without school supplies,” she added.
Besides the laundry service, the school maintains a closet with clean uniform pants and shirts, toiletries; and warm clothing like coats and gloves, supplied by a DonorsChoose.org grant, parents and community support.
“If you smell bad, you don’t feel good, and other kids can be mean sometimes,” said Mitchell, the principal. “That shuts them off and it also plays a part in their behavior because if I know that something is wrong with me, I come in defensive, I come in ready to fight. So if I come in and I feel good about myself, I come in ready to be a student.”
Initiatives to address students’ social needs have increased so much that DonorsChoose.org expanded its site a year ago to address what the company refers to as “student life essentials” — projects for clean clothes, cold weather gear, shoes, eyewear, food for the evenings and weekends, personal hygiene items and laundry supplies, said spokesman Chris Pearsall.
“We have seen a good number of washer and dryer requests, many to help students – and sometimes their families – with laundry because they don’t have easy or affordable access to laundry facilities at home,” Pearsall said. “Other reasons might include machines for washing sports uniforms, teaching life skills, or helping young students who have accidents at school.
“We know these are all items that students from low-income families need,” Pearsall said, in order “to be able to focus at school – or sometimes simply attend – and our teachers have shared the profound changes they’ve seen from students who’ve simply been able to practice good self-care.”
Pearsall said DonorsChoose.org is now exploring options for adding commercial grade washers to its list of available products because of five recent requests from across the country, including from New York City, a Native American reservation in South Dakota, California — and Detroit.
“If you don’t address the social and emotional issues that come along with not having clean clothes, not having food, you can’t get to the part of why we’re here, the academic part,” said Mitchell, who chose teaching 20 years ago instead of a computer science when she discovered her niece couldn’t read in the fifth grade.
“We can’t concern ourselves with what’s not happening at home,” she said. “We have to do what we can to make sure it’s happening here.”