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Leon Kaye headshot

Clean Clothes -- and Washing Machine Donations -- Improve School Attendance

By Leon Kaye

School can be enough of an ordeal for many kids. For the poorest children in the U.S., countless obstacles stand in the way of their ability to focus on academics: parents working two jobs, homelessness, a parent incarcerated, or little money after food and rent in the monthly budget. A St. Louis school principal realized that many of the students’ parents did not have access to, nor could afford, a washing machine or even trips to the local laundromat. As a result, students stayed at home if they did not have clean clothes So, Dr. Melody Gunn, the former principal of Gibson Elementary School in St. Louis, contacted the Whirlpool Corp. to see how it could help. The company donated a washer and dryer, more schools became interested in such a program, and then something remarkable occurred.

The outcome is Care Counts, a Whirlpool program that first launched test runs at schools in St. Louis and Fairfield, California. Before the laundry program was launched at these schools, at-risk children missed an average of almost 12 days a year.

Whirlpool partnered with the school districts and a developmental psychologist, Dr. Richard Rende of Brown University, to measure the correlation between clean clothes and improved attendance. The schools started out the year by identifying the most at-risk kids. During the academic year, the students’ attendance, grades and laundry were tracked to measure whether there was any links between having clean clothes and academic performance. Teachers were also asked to fill out a qualitative survey that evaluated the students’ academic performance and interest in extracurricular activities.

At the end of the school year, the schools witnessed a huge difference. That average number of missed school days dropped from a dozen to only 3.5 days within this identified group of at-risk children. Teachers reported that 89 percent of these students participated more in class, 95 percent of them were seen as more motivated and 95 percent participated in more extracurricular activities.

“The program has given us the ability to do one more thing for kids,” said Martha Lacy, principal of David Weir K-8 Academy in Fairfield, California. “And to make sure that they are not only coming to school, but that they will successful when they get here.” According to a Fox Business report, Whirlpool lets each district decide how to manage their student laundry programs. At the Gibson school in St. Louis, parent volunteers were the ones who managed the program and did the children’s laundry while they they were in class.

Whirlpool claimed that the program managed to clean approximately 2,300 loads of laundry for these at-risk children, and its success has convinced the company to donate more washing machines to more schools. An article on the Atlantic's City Lab blog says as many as 300 school districts have expressed interest in the program.

The Whirlpool program has attracted its fair share of snark, on Whirlpool’s Facebook page and especially on one news web site that syndicated the FOX Business story covering this program. Howls of “what’s next” was the common refrain, and those were the more tactful comments. Some may scratch their heads and wonder why schools are now in the position of cleaning their students’ clothes. But in fairness, these kids are in a near impossible living situation due to no fault of their own. Partnerships such as Whirlpool’s work with school districts is an example of how companies can be community citizens and have a positive impact on youth. And in this case, that extra help for kids serves as a hand up, not a handout.

Image credit: Whirlpool Clean Counts

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye