The Key to School Attendance: Washing Machines?

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The first step to succeeding in education is actually showing up, but for many at-risk children, this is not such an easy thing. For families in struggling communities, countless obstacles stand in the way of regular school attendance.

Many of these obstacles are deeply rooted in socioeconomic reality, reflecting complex and multilayered inequalities that require equally complex and multilayered solutions. But there is at least one simple step that every school can take to mitigate the impact of poverty on attendance. The secret weapon, believe it or not, is a washing machine.

Laundry and Low Attendance

Melody Gunn, former principal of Gibson Elementary in St. Louis, stumbled on this revelation as she investigated the underlying cause of low student attendance at her school. Gibson Elementary provided all of its children with access to free or reduced price lunches. The school facilitated transportation for those who needed it. So what was behind her student body's chronic absenteeism?

When Principal Gunn reached out to parents in search of an answer, she made a surprising connection. Many of the school's families lacked access to detergent, washing machines and even electricity. While parents clawed away at the expenses of food and rent, their children were living without regular access to clean laundry. For many students, the social and emotional stigma of unwashed clothing is a powerful deterrent to school attendance.

As Principal Gunn connected the dots, she reached out to Whirlpool for help. The appliance company donated a washer and dryer to her school. Principal Gunn then invited students who had missed 10 or more days of school to bring their clothes in for laundering. The impact was immediate. Chronically absent students exhibited rapidly improved rates of attendance. The program proved an intuitive way to respond to a clear and present need in the school's community.

Understanding Chronic Absence

Chronic absence is a reality for school communities through the U.S. According to NPR, while schools have historically tracked average attendance rate, many have overlooked the more nuanced measure of “chronic absence.” This is defined as missing 10% or more of a school year, or roughly two days of school a month. Schools and districts are increasingly tracking this metric and the most recent figures suggest that as many as 6 million students can be classified as chronically absent.

A number like that suggests that chronic absence is a pervasive educational bottleneck, one with considerable academic implications. Regardless of socioeconomic background, chronically absent students are significantly likelier to struggle in their studies. A 2011 study out of California found that only 17% of students who were chronically absent in both kindergarten and 1st grade were proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade. This compared to 64% of their peers who attended school regularly.

The reality is that chronic absenteeism predicts academic struggle. And though the impact is negative across socioeconomic strata, both the risk and impact are far deeper for students living in poverty.

While Gibson Elementary's washing machine strategy is a modest response to fairly overwhelming sociocultural challenges, there is brilliance in its modesty. An advocacy group called Attendance Works provides a strong basis for this approach, advising that the best way to treat endemic chronic absence is to first identify explicit barriers and, second, to design solutions targeted at breaking down some of these barriers.

Gibson Elementary's program provides proof that this approach works.

Care Counts

After seeing success at Gibson, Whirlpool installed washers and dryers at 16 more schools, in both St. Louis and the district of Fairfield, California. The results have been extremely encouraging. In the first year of Whirlpool's Care Counts program, 93% of participating students increased their attendance by an average of nearly two weeks.

Not only were these students now showing up for class, but their teachers reported that 95% of participants were also showing more motivation during classroom time and had become more apt to extracurricular participation.

Whirlpool intends to expand the Care Counts program to another 20 schools and is fielding requests from some 300 others. Care Counts also reports that it washed an average of 50 loads of laundry per participant during its first year of operation. This suggests that there is a meaningful level of need at each of the participating schools, and likely at countless others.

In a broader sense, this initiative offers a workable model and approach for schools everywhere that must wrangle with chronic absence. The symptoms of poverty are inseparable from the challenges of education. The Whirlpool initiative shows that in the long fight against the disease of poverty, there are more immediate ways to treat its symptoms.

Treating the Symptoms Of Poverty

The Care Counts program is great in two ways. First, it actually appears to work. Second, this is an example of a private enterprise donating something of immediate value to the cause of education.

I think we can all agree that while Whirlpool is on the right track and should be praised for its efforts, there is so much more that it and other private enterprises could be doing. We believe there are innumerable creative and sensible ways to advance educational opportunity even in the face of poverty. The Care Counts program is just one way that we can isolate the barriers to attendance and come up with smart, simple and targeted solutions.

Here are just a few others worth consideration:

Community Markets

The washer and dryer initiative reveals an otherwise unexplored connection between attendance issues and hygiene. This means that there are likely any number of ways that schools and companies can partner up to help families address basic hygiene needs. By engaging retail manufacturers of soaps, detergents, toilet paperd, and household cleansers for donations, schools can create “Community Markets” where such items are freely available to families in need.

Health Screening

Companies in the highly profitable healthcare industry should be called upon to dispatch expertly-trained personnel and sophisticated resources to schools in disadvantaged communities. Such outreach represents an opportunity to provide actionable health education, preventative health screening, and immediate care where necessary. A healthier student population is also far less susceptible to low attendance.

Before-school Programming

Parents who juggle kiddie carpools and work commutes have a lot on their plates. Schools can help by providing before-school programs. These morning hour programs allow parents to match up work and school schedules. They also represent an opportunity for students to engage in meaningful and constructive activity even before the opening bell rings. Retail companies of widely varying shape and size should be called upon to contribute sporting goods, fitness equipment, educational toys and any number of additional resources to accommodate fun, enriching and physically invigorating before-school programs.

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These are just a few areas where partnership between schools and private enterprises could yield immediate opportunities for at-risk students. But this is the short list. There are all kinds of creative and constructive ways to help students overcome barriers to attendance. We'd love to hear some of your ideas. Share below!

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