School laundry program may dry up chronic absenteeism in districts

NASHVILLE-- Students at Nashville's Whitsitt Elementary have one less problem when it comes to succeeding at school.

Teachers want them here everyday, but social issues outside the classroom sometimes get in the way of them coming to school and focusing once they get here.

"At this point in their lives, students have enough to worry about in their lives. We're trying to take an extra barrier out of the way for them. One less stressor for them to have to worry about it which would be a clean set of clothes," said Justin Uppinghouse, Whittsitt Elementary principal.

Whirlpool donated washers and dryers and is supplying detergent to 3 Nashville area schools through a program called Care Counts.

The district strategically placed them in schools surrounded by high poverty and battling chronic absenteeism.

"Our data shows us that students that are chronically absent, students that miss 10% or more of school, they have about a 2% chance to be proficient or advanced academically," said Alison McArthur, Metro Nashville School District.

District administrators are convinced this program will impact academic performance and self-esteem. It will also make a big difference for mothers like Janie Smythia, who has three young children.

"With everything small kids need it's hard to come up with every little thing that you need, especially for babies when they're constantly making messes and getting their clothes dirty," she said.

"We're going to identify a core group of students that are having trouble with attendance. Maybe their teachers notice that their clothes are dirty, Maybe social workers notice that. So we're going to put those students into a group, and we'll track them," said McArthur.

Each participating family will get a code so the district can track the data and see if it improves school attendance.

Teachers at Whitsitt Elementary are washing the clothes for now but at some schools parents will be allowed to wash the clothes themselves.

The Metro Nashville School District is the fist in the state to have the Care Counts program.

Some of its students have the same needs as those who live in Shelby County. It's why Shelby County said it's looking at how to implement a similar program in its district.

"We would love for us to all join forces and for us to learn from each other. I know there was at least one community school in Memphis because when they started the school they visited here," said McArthur.

Whirlpool said the program is already making a difference in some states.

The company told WREG clean clothes increased motivation in class. Students were more likely to participate in extracurricular activities. They interacted with peers and enjoyed school more and grades improved. Nashville's program is only 3 weeks old but a year from now it hopes to show the same positive changes.

Last year, about 20,000 Shelby County School students missed 18 or more days of school. That's considered chronically absent. That number jumps to 30,000 when you include all the county, the municipalities, charter and ASD school districts.