St. Louis school sees 90% of their students’ attendance increase because of washing machines

By Walter Einenkel

Anybody with kids and anybody without kids who doesn’t own a washing machine knows how much of a bummer washing clothes can be. It’s not cheap, it’s not usually convenient, and when you aren’t able to get clothing washed you can feel pretty awful about yourself. Former principal Dr. Melody Gibson at Gibson Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri, found herself at a loss as to why her (mostly low-income) students were suffering such low attendance rates. They had free or reduced lunches. What else was holding them back?
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.”

She went to Whirlpool and asked them for a washing machine and dryer. She invited students that had missed more than 10 days of school to wash their clothing. The program quickly became larger, with Whirlpool sending 16 machines to schools in St. Louis.
“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.

Income inequality affects us in every aspect of our lives. The mountain of stress and the logistics of being impoverished can be so overwhelming and disheartening it is difficult to explain it to someone who has never experienced it. Whirlpool is expanding its program to Baltimore and Nashville. Many other schools around the country have reached out to them for similar services. When you hear about school funding getting cut along with food stamps and other social services, just remember this: there are elementary school-aged children sitting around in dirty clothes because they cannot afford to wash those clothes. This program is a good one and does good things and while it provides relief to many, it is not a solution to our more profound problems of income and social inequality.