That’s when the three kids became part of a nationwide research initiative launched last year by Whirlpool to study whether simple access to clean clothes can boost school attendance among America’s neediest kids.
Early in the school year, Whitsitt had signed on as one of three community schools in Nashville to install washers and dryers for students in need of clean clothing.
Simply letting kids wash their stinky uniforms right there at school has led to immediate improvements, said Chris Echegaray, the Whitsitt site manager for Metro Nashville Public Schools’ community schools initiative. Across the board, he said, he has observed positive behavior shifts — and an upward tick in attendance — among the dozens of students who use the machines, often with help from their parents.
“There are a lot of people living paycheck to paycheck, using predatory lending places as their banks. We forget that there are a lot of people right there on the fringe and that one car repair will set them back, that one illness will set them back,” Echegaray said. “Being at the school and walking around and seeing the families that use it, you can see the positive impact that it does have for these families day to day. It’s one less thing to worry about.”
Missing school often takes a devastating toll on student academic performance. During the 2013–14 school year, more than 6 million kids — about one in seven students — missed 15 or more days of school, according to the latest U.S. Department of Education data. A 2012 analysis by Johns Hopkins University and the National Governors Association found chronic absenteeism to be among the strongest predictors to identify future high school dropouts — stronger even than suspensions and test scores.
Anecdotally, Echegaray said he’s already seen huge improvements in attendance and overall student well-being at his school, which is located in a gentrifying southeast Nashville neighborhood where Hispanic immigrants represent a majority of the student population — 90 percent come from economically disadvantaged families, and more than half speak English as a second language.
Richard Rende, a developmental psychologist who is working with Whirlpool to study the effects the machines have on student attendance, said that while school officials and researchers have noticed that many students don’t have adequate access to clean clothes, nobody had studied whether the problem drives absenteeism.
The Whirlpool study is looking to change that. Once a participating school installs washers and dryers, school leaders identify students who need clean clothes, invite their families to participate, and anonymously track their laundry habits, grades, and attendance throughout the year. Teachers are also asked to complete a survey with questions such as whether they believe participating students show increased engagement in class.
Nationwide, according to Whirlpool, teachers say that nearly 20 percent of students struggle with access to clean clothes — and that those kids are more likely than other children to experience chronic absenteeism, missing at least 10 percent of school in a single year. A 2016 report on New York City students found that homeless kids were twice as likely to miss 20 or more days of school in a single year. Those children are also the least likely to have access to clean clothes to wear to school.
In its first year, the Whirlpool experiment has come up with some promising numbers. After providing about 2,000 loads of clean clothes to kids in Fairfield, Calif., and St. Louis, Mo., the company found improved attendance in 90 percent of tracked students. In fact, those children attended school for 6.1 more days, on average, than the previous year.
While much of the data won’t be finalized until the end of the second year, Rende said initial signs point to increased attendance among participating children at all grade levels. “The few times I’ve had conversations with school personnel, I’ve been told this program is helping them understand both the magnitude of the issue and the promise of the program,” he said. “In terms of scaling it up, I would imagine there are many schools across the country that could benefit.”
Beyond the three Nashville schools, Whirlpool is installing washers and dryers this year in high-need schools in Baltimore, Md., and Charlotte, N.C., and Jennifer Tayebi, Whirlpool's brand manager, said the company plans to branch out further next year. When Whirlpool launched the program, she said, about 300 schools, from every state, asked to participate.
Beyond attendance gains, the program brought some unexpected benefits, said Alison McArthur, program coordinator for Community Achieves, the Nashville district’s network of 34 community schools. When students have access to their own clean clothes, she said, the supply of new clothes that the schools stockpile for needy kids doesn’t deplete as quickly. There’s also been a positive impact on teachers, she said — they’ve observed fewer classroom disruptions.Echegaray concurred. “I remember being in school, sitting next to the smelly kid,” he said. “I think these little things add up to a lot.”