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Schools are installing washing machines to fight chronic absences

Washer and Dryer
Kevin Hale / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

More than 6.5 million K-12 students each year are chronically absent, defined as missing 15 or more school days during the school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

That's 13% of the student population.

Students are chronically absent due to things like health problems, limited transportation, and lack of safety – problems especiallyprevalent in low-income communities.

But another issue that some students face is not having clean clothes to wear to school.

This was an issue at Gibson Elementary in St. Louis, Missouri, where many students were missing nearly a month of school a year, according to NPR.

When former principal Melody Gunn visited the homes of students who were frequently absent, she found many students were missing school because they didn't have clean uniforms to wear. And many families didn't have access to washers and dryers in their homes. According to NPR:

Gunn thought this was a problem she could fix. She called Whirlpool, which agreed to donate some washers and dryers. Gunn had them installed at the school and then opened the doors for parents to use the machines. If folks couldn't make it during the school day, the school would offer access to the laundry machines after hours.

Whirlpool then surveyed 600 public school teachers around the country and found that nearly one in five students in the schools surveyed did not have access to clean clothing.

As a result, the company donated 17 pairs of washers and dryers to districts in St. Louis and Fairfield, California and created the Care Counts Program. According to The Huffington Post:

The company provided Gibson Elementary and 11 other schools with washers and dryers.... At each school, principals enlist a teacher, administrator or parent to act as a program leader. The leader helps identify students for the program and anonymously tracks their loads of laundry, attendance and grades throughout the school year. The process of laundering student clothes varies, but at some of the schools, parents sign up for time slots to do their laundry at the school throughout the week.

It has been one year since Care Counts started. Families have done more than 2,300 loads of laundry in 17 schools. And 93% of students who participated in the program improved their attendance, according to Whirlpool.

Alison Guernsey is a seventh grade English teacher at David Weir Preparatory Academy in Fairfield, California. She told TODAY:

One of my students had just sort of withdrawn from school completely. After we started the program, he was more excited about coming, and he started to be actively engaged in class. He didn’t feel like an outsider anymore.

Students who are chronically absent are less likely to read at grade level by third grade, are more likely to drop out of high school, and have poorer outcomes later in life. According to Education Week:

Reducing chronic absence is good not only for students, but also for our schools. As taxpayers, we already pay for the school buildings and the teachers needed to educate our children. We're spending time and money to expand early education and improve 3rd grade reading so that we can increase our graduation rates. Why not do everything we can to ensure that students show up every day and make the most of our investments?

Whirlpool plans to install laundry machines in four or five more school districts nationwide during the 2016-2017 school year.

You can check out a short video about Whirlpool's Care Counts Program below:

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.