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School laundry rooms boost pride and attendance

CLEANING UP ATTENDANCE—Thanks to commercial partner programs, such as Care Counts, at-risk students can wash their clothes and are less likely to miss school.
CLEANING UP ATTENDANCE—Thanks to commercial partner programs, such as Care Counts, at-risk students can wash their clothes and are less likely to miss school.

Districts have been installing laundry facilities at schools in low-income neighborhoods, giving students one less reason to miss class.

Many at-risk students from low-income homes often do not have regular access to clean clothes, drawing unwanted attention and ridicule from classmates. As a result, they skip school.

In 2016, David A. Weir Preparatory Academy—a Title I K8 school near San Francisco—installed an industrial-sized washer and dryer.

Attendance increased for 90 percent of the students with access to the machines, while 89 percent of those students participated more in class.

Launch cycle

At-risk students with high truancy rates were initially targeted at Weir Academy, but getting families to take advantage of the program was a challenge, says Martha Lacy, the school’s former principal, who is now the district’s assistant director of elementary education for Fairfield-Susin USD.

“You really have to be creative in the ways that you actually let people know that this is a good thing and that they’re not going to be judged if they wash their clothes,” says Lacy.

“It’s not like the day we got the washing machine we had this groundswell of people showing up and saying, ‘Oh, thank you so much; this is a wonderful service!’ It took a while.”

Families were informed of the opportunity in a discreet way, says Lacy. A few families came to the school to do laundry, while some students brought dirty clothes in the morning that were later washed by PTO volunteers or by teachers or paraprofessionals.

The district has expanded the program to another six schools.

Building relationships

To help combat truancy at West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey, an old football locker room was recently converted into a laundromat with the help of a $20,000 grant from a local utility.

Donations from the community provide detergent and other necessities.

Topeka Public Schools in Kansas has also installed washers and dryers, mostly at Title I schools.

Parents wash and dry one load of laundry in exchange for one hour of volunteer service, says Superintendent Tiffany Anderson. “The program gets families and schools engaged with young people,” Anderson says.

Some manufacturers partner with schools. For example, Whirlpool donated the washers and dryers to Fairfield-Susin USD as part of its Care Counts program, and the district performed the installation.

The district monitors the attendance and grades of students who participate in the school laundry program.

The approach to laundry access varies by school, says Paige Gregory, Whirlpool associate brand manager. For instance, at some schools, parents sign up for time slots so they can do laundry when it is convenient.

Schools should also identify a private space for a washer and dryer so students and parents feel comfortable, says Gregory.

Ultimately, supporting such a program helps to build community, says Lacy, of Fairfield-Susin USD.

“Individual kids would come up to me and say, ‘It made a difference this morning because some days I don’t go to school because we don’t have clean clothes,’” says Lacy. “And if you can do that for even one student, it’s worth it.”