Dr. Melody Gunn, the former principal of Gibson Elementary in St. Louis, couldn’t figure out why student attendance was on the low side. All of Gibson’s kids were provided free or reduced lunches, and the school facilitated transportation.
In talking to parents, Gunn discovered that many didn’t have easy access to washing machines. Or if they did have machines, they couldn't always use them because they couldn’t afford detergent, or their electricity had been shut off. For these families, laundry had to take a backseat to more pressing needs such as food and rent.
It turned out that when students didn’t have clean clothes, they often stayed home from school out of embarrassment. Logan, an eighth-grader, spoke about how difficult it is for others to understand his problem: “I think people don’t talk about not having clean clothes because it makes you want to cry or go home or run away or something. It doesn’t feel good.”
Gunn reached out to the Whirlpool company to see if it could help, and it donated a washer and dryer to her school. She then invited students who had missed more than 10 days of school to bring in their clothes for laundering. Whirlpool later gave 16 more schools in districts in St. Louis and Fairfield, California, washers and dryers through a new program.
“After just one month, we saw an impact,” Gunn tells CityLab. The more long-term results of the program have actually been remarkable. The first year saw over 90 percent of tracked students increase their attendance, with those most in need of the service averaging an increase of almost 2 weeks. Teachers surveyed reported that 95 percent of participants showed more motivation in class and were more apt to participate in extra-curricular activities. The results support research demonstrating that chronic absenteeism isn’t because of kids’ lack of smarts or motivation, but is largely due to coming from a low-income household.
With the United States confronting such profound problems as structural inequality and racism, clean clothing may seem like a band aid on a festering wound. Gunn says that as a public educator, she’s simply looking to serve her public’s needs and provide a model for other communities to emulate. “What’s around me is what I can control,” she explains. “This is our responsibility. It’s a need. It’s not a want.”
Whirlpool says it will expand the program next year to at least 20 additional schools, including one in Baltimore and one in Nashville. Over 300 schools have expressed interest in the program.