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Free Laundry Machines Could Be A Key To Boosting School Attendance

When Whirlpool first donated washers and dryers to low-income schools, chronically absent kids started showing up an average of two more days per month. A new partnership with Teach for America will expand the program’s reach even further.

Free Laundry Machines Could Be A Key To Boosting School Attendance
“We just kept hearing that there was a need for access to clean clothes amongst students.” [Photo: Whirlpool]

Five years ago, the Piccolo School of Excellence in Chicago was selected as a “turnaround school” by the state of Illinois. It was one of the lowest-performing schools in the city, and had been so for a decade, current principal Michael Abello tells Fast Company. A complete overhaul in administration, from teachers to sound AV technicians, would help the school get back on track, the state reasoned. Between 2013 and 2014, the school jumped 864 places forward in the state’s rankings.

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From a data perspective, one could look at that leap and say Piccolo was transformed. But administrators like Abello know that data only tells part of the story–for the students, who come from the Humboldt Park neighborhood around the school and who, with the exception of maybe less than 1% of the student body, come from families living below the poverty line, academic advancements don’t necessarily mean that their daily lives in school are any easier.

It doesn’t, for instance, take into account that many Piccolo students, when they come home at the end of the day, don’t have a place to wash their royal blue uniform shirts. Without clean clothes, students become withdrawn and wary of participating in group activities. Often, they’ll skip school altogether.

“Discretion is key here–we don’t want any students to feel bad or uncomfortable about using the machines.” [Photo: Whirlpool]
The laundry appliance manufacturer Whirlpool began to hear snippets of similar stories from educators across the U.S. around two years ago, as it was developing a community outreach program. “We just kept hearing that there was a need for access to clean clothes amongst students, and how without it, students were not even comfortable coming to school,” Jen Tayebi, brand manager for Whirlpool, tells Fast Company. They came up with a simple idea: to donate washers and dryers to schools where lack of access to the appliances at home was making a dent in school attendance.

Whirlpool started small in 2015, installing a laundry pair in just 16 schools in St. Louis, Missouri, and Fairfield, California. A point person was selected at each school to oversee use of the machines, and to identify kids who might benefit from them. “Discretion is key here–we don’t want any students to feel bad or uncomfortable about using the machines,” Tayebi says. Instead, the in-school administrator will collect laundry from the students, wash it during school hours, and return it at the end of the day, or direct parents to how they can use the machines instead. There’s no set formula for how the machines are used, Tayebi says; it’s however works best for the students and their families.

In the first year of the Care Counts program, attendance jumped an average of two days for students who were previously missing more than 10 days per year; teachers reported a 95% increase in classroom and extracurricular activities among the same students. The success of the program, which washes, on average, around 50 loads of laundry per participating student per year, led Whirlpool to expand to another 20 schools and four more cities. This year, a partnership with Teach for America (TFA) will bring the Care Counts program up to 60 schools in 10 U.S. cities.

“We heard stories about teachers hand-washing their students’ clothes at school, or bringing home loads of their kids’ laundry for them.” [Photo: Whirlpool]
TFA worked closely with Whirlpool to identify the regions and schools that would most benefit from free laundry services, and Whirlpool, through attendance data analysis and conversations with administrators, worked to narrow down the new recipients to five schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Chicago. “We heard stories about teachers hand-washing their students’ clothes at school, or bringing home loads of their kids’ laundry for them,” Tayebi says. “It’s really been eye-opening that this is such a strong need.”

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Abello, who’s been an administrator at Piccolo since the turnaround, and principal for the past four years, says that while absenteeism doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, he often hears from chronically absent students that lack of clean clothes is part of the reason. Over the course of his tenure, he and his staff have explored purchasing a washer and dryer for students and families to use, but due to financial limitations, they’ve been unable to. The Whirlpool donation will circumvent those budget concerns, and the appliance company will also oversee installation and regular maintenance of the machines. Piccolo’s attendance coordinator will identify the students and families most in need of the resource, Abello says, and she will develop a schedule for when they can use the machines; Piccolo teachers will also flag to her any students that might need to use the washer and dryer on a case-by-case basis.

Representatives from over 1,000 schools worldwide have reached out to Whirlpool to participate in the program, and while Tayebi says the company’s ultimate goal is to meet that need, they are, for the time being, taking it slow and steady. “We haven’t had any roadblocks to date, and I think that’s because we’ve been focusing on expanding slowly and with consideration for the particular needs of the students, families, and schools,” she says. Over the next couple years, Whirlpool will continue to chip away at the list of in-need schools on their radar in the U.S., and consult with their overseas offices to consider the potential of launching the initiative in other countries.

About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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