Martha Lacy didn’t study Laundry 101 during her undergraduate work in education nor in any of her principal preparation courses.
But as principal of David Weir K-8 Preparatory Academy, a Title I school in Fairfield, Calif., she learned that dirty clothes were often one reason children missed school. If children were unaware of their own less-than-clean T-shirts and jeans, other students soon let them know about the condition of their clothes. If a girl discovered she had no clean clothes, she just skipped school until she did have something clean to wear.
During the 2014-15 school year, 20% of the 800 students at Lacy’s school missed more than 10% of school days, the classic definition of being chronically absent. And the numbers were worse for the youngest children: 33% of students in prekindergarten and kindergarten missed 18 or more days of school.
Doing laundry is a challenge for many poor families. Families without washers and dryers must travel to a laundromat, trips that can be problematic because of transportation, the cost of doing multiple loads of laundry, and often having to manage many children for the trip. Even families who may have a washer and dryer may lack funds for detergent, electricity, and water.
So, when Lacy saw an opportunity to acquire a washer and dryer for her school, she leaped at the chance. Last year, David Weir was one of 17 U.S. schools in a Whirlpool Care Counts pilot program to discover if helping kids into clean clothes would improve their attendance.
To support the schools, Whirlpool provided and installed the machines and provided detergent and canvas laundry bags with the company logo.
“I believe that every parent gets up in the morning and wants to do the best they can for their kids. But not everyone has the same opportunities and the same resources. If the school can make the difference and that will change their child’s ability to get to school and therefore their life, I will embrace it. I will do anything possible to get my kids to school,” Lacy said.
Personal outreach to families with chronically absent children made the most sense to Lacy. Definitely no flyers. “We wanted to be as discreet and gracious as possible,” she said. “Our message is that if you want them to be successful, then your children need to be in school. Here’s one way we can help.”
Lacy and her staff gave laundry bags to the families of children who were chronically absent and invited them to fill them with dirty clothes and return them to school to be laundered. Sometimes, instructional aides did the laundry; sometimes, parents came to school to do the laundry themselves. Lacy said those washing machines handled several loads of laundry every day.
Did it work?
Chronic absenteeism at Lacy’s school dropped from 20% to 10% in a single year. So instead of 160 children missing 18 or more days of school, only 80 missed that much last year. Not perfect but a big improvement.
But teachers of the targeted students saw other differences. In a survey by Whirlpool, teachers overwhelmingly believed these students participated more often in class, interacted more with peers, and enjoyed school more.
For herself, Lacy watched certain kids to see if Whirlpool’s support made a difference. One family in particular stood out. This family of eight children had had problems with attendance for years, with each child often missing 30 to 40 days of school every year. She knew the family had a washer and dryer, but their home had no electricity to run the machines.
So the family’s 4th-grade daughter was one of the first students invited to join the Whirlpool program. The young girl stuffed the laundry bag with dirty clothes that night. By the end of the next day, she had a bag filled with clean clothes. She repeated that routine every week.
And she didn’t miss another day of school all year.
Learn more about Whirlpool Care Counts program. Email CareCounts@Whirlpool.com
JOAN RICHARDSON (@KappanJoan) is editor-in-chief of Kappan magazine.
Originally published in October 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (2), 4. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.