Spin, rinse, study? School absenteeism has officially become a widespread issue in education with 11% of elementary school children and 18% of high schoolers missing 15 days or more of school each year. We never would have imagined that a way for schools to stem the absenteeism tide would be installing free washers and dryers, but two school districts with high numbers of students from low-income homes have shown that this simple measure is extremely effective in empowering students at an age when peer pressure, social acceptance, and appearance are important.
As part of a Whirlpool sponsored program called Whirlpool Care Counts, school administrations identified small groups of students who had missed at least ten days of school — and asked them to bring clothes to school with them. Whirlpool provided laundry bags, detergent, garbage bags, and fabric softener in addition to the washers and the dryers, and the schools emphasized that the machines would be available during the school day for the children’s use. For the students, some of whom are homeless, are staying temporarily with family members, or are living in homes that are plagued by domestic violence, the basic opportunity to wash their clothes during class and have clean clothes to wear offered a powerful incentive to come to school… and even to thrive there. A principal at one of the participating schools noted that while many factors influence absenteeism, some children “would just stay home if they didn’t have clothes to wear.”
Although the notion that kids who don’t have access to washers and dryers feel they would rather skip school than go wearing dirty clothes is heartbreaking, it’s understandable, especially during tween and teen years when social hierarchies and cliques can lead to rampant unkindness. Schools participating in the Care Counts program have seen an improvement in attendance rates with 93% of participating students increasing their attendance in the program’s first year. They have also received multiple stories of how individual students began feeling more confident, comfortable, and able to focus on school once they had access to clean clothes. Providing laundry facilities is a simple way to approach the complex issue of school absenteeism, but it appears to be an efficient and effective option that we hope gets duplicated in many more schools in the future.