New Program Suggests Link Between Clean Clothes and School Attendance

August 29th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

Research has long suggested a link between struggles faced by low income families with school absenteeism. In response, educational reform advocates have often argued that providing robust social services at public schools as one strategy to boost attendance.

A recent post on The Atlantic's City Lab suggests that beyond the commonly discussed programs aimed at keeping children in school, like free and reduced lunch, there's another service that needs to be considered: laundry.

It's simple really. Low-income families often don't have access to a washer and dryer, and children are less likely to want to attend school if they fee like they'll be teased for wearing dirty clothes.

The Atlantic details a successful relationship between several schools districts in and around St. Louis, Missouri and Fairfield, California and Whirlpool. According to CityLab, teachers found that 90 percent of students involved in the program had improved attendance records by the end of the first year.

"What I see is that if kids feel like they don’t fit in — if they feel like they are missing something from the norm — then they don’t want to participate in activities or sometimes even come to school," Alison Guernsey, an eight grade teacher in Fairfield, California, told TODAY. "Many of our students are transient. Some are homeless, or they might stay with family members, but they don’t have a stable home or money or resources."

So, is it fair to assume a directly correlation between washing machines and improved attendance?

Not necessarily, writes educator and journalist Paul Katula at Voxitatis Blog.

"Comparing how many days a kid goes to school in 2012, say, to how many days that kid goes to school in 2013 is misleading," Katula writes. "So many variables affect kids’ lives at school and in their communities that any change in any dependent variable can’t possibly be attributed to any one of the independent variables with any confidence, and the public is misled."


That's not to say clean clothes hold no value to students. Indeed, Katula lists free laundry as one of the many services among "medical, dental, and vision care, psychological or counseling services" that correlate with an improved educational experience.

So, it's a worthwhile program, especially if Whirlpool is donating the laundry machines. However, as Katula notes, it's not a silver bullet.

In Reality, Solving School Absenteeism is Complex.

It's estimated that at least five percent of students miss 18 or more days in a given school year, which can set them back academically and increase the chances that they'll drop out of school later in life. While it's impossible to pinpoint the exact reason each student misses class, one consistent trend experts have found is that low-income students are disproportionately affected by absenteeism.

As Mother Jones reported in 2014, one trusted approach to solving absenteeism is precise student tracking. That means not only keeping track of how many days students miss, but getting to the bottom of why they're not coming to school.

"If everybody from a certain neighborhood is missing school and they have to walk through a bad neighborhood, then suddenly you say, 'Oh, we should run a school bus through there,'" Phyllis Jordan, a co-author of the non-profit Attendance Works' 2014 study on school absenteeism, told Mother Jones. "If it's all the kids with asthma and you don't have a school nurse, maybe that's a reason. Or maybe it's all concentrated in a single classroom, and you have an issue with the teacher."

According to Mother Jones, Hawai'i was able to reduce their state's chronic absenteeism rate from 18 to 11 percent in 2012 through increased tracking of the problem.

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