Here’s why Chelsea Clinton came to Chicago to visit a laundromat

Alicja Kuhl and her adult daughter were pulling clothes out of the dryer at her neighborhood Wash Time on Wednesday when the unexpected happened: Former first daughter Chelsea Clinton walked in, followed by a gaggle of TV cameras, to promote a program that aims to set up more kid-friendly learning centers in laundromats.

Kuhl, whose three children are grown, said she often spied children enjoying the book-filled children’s corner in her Hermosa laundromat — and the learning center did a double service of keeping youngsters occupied while the adults washed and folded clothes.

“This is good for the kids because they can stay and play and someone can read to them,” she said, nodding to a sign advertising a twice-a-week story time led by visiting children’s librarians from the Chicago Public Library.

Clinton visited a Hermosa laundromat to help promote an early literacy program championed by her Too Small to Fail organization.

Chelsea Clinton decided to pay a quick visit to Kuhl’s laundromat to bring wider attention to a nascent program championed through her family foundation’s Too Small to Fail initiative. The idea is pretty simple: deliver early learning materials such as books, alphabet rugs, and puppets to places families traffic such as barbershops, grocery stories, and, yes, laundromats.

In Chicago on Wednesday, Clinton said that her efforts were inspired in part by motherhood — she’s a mother of two, with another on the way — and by a scary statistic: Nationwide, 60 percent of children show up to kindergarten unprepared.

Related: Four questions for Chelsea Clinton about expanding early learning in cities

“That is a problem we have to help solve,” said Clinton, who said that motherhood had “sharpened” her focus on improving outcomes for the nation’s youngest learners. “One of the ways we can help solve that is ensuring that literacy opportunities are everywhere that families are.”

In Illinois, a kindergarten basic skills test issued for the first time in the fall of 2017 found preparedness even lower: only 1 in 4 children statewide showed up to kindergarten with adequate math, reading, and social-emotional skills.

There are many discussions taking place right now in the city and state about how to fund and expand early learning — and how to reach families who, for reasons that early childhood advocates say they don’t fully understand, eschew publicly funded preschools and day care centers. And there’s momentum here with outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout and the election of early childhood philanthropist J.B. Pritzker to the governor’s office.

But to roll out such programs more broadly, philanthropies such as the Clinton Foundation and organizations such as the Chicago Public Library recognize that they need a vital third partner: willing neighborhood business owners.

In the Chicago area, they’ve found at least one group with a broad business base. That’s the Coin Laundry Association, an Oakbrook Terrace-based national coalition of laundromat owners with an active foundation that sponsored a laundromat literacy summit this week in Chicago. Two of their members are Kate and Neal Shapiro, who own the Wash Time on Fullerton Avenue.

Wash Time on West Fullerton Avenue

Kate Shapiro is a former teacher, so after purchasing the laundromat five years ago, she upgraded an existing children’s corner with healthy shelves of books, small tables and chairs, crayons, and a play bench filled with foam blocks. The effort, and a plan hatched about 1½  years ago to bring in librarians twice a week, aligned with her interests. But she acknowledged there’s a business case to be made, too.

“It definitely enhances our business,” she said. “Our philosophy is that we’re not just a laundromat — we’re a community center. We want to be all-inclusive, enjoyable, friendly, and a place where you can have a cup of coffee and your children can be actively involved.”

The Chicago Public Library has for decades run story times in community spaces, from laundromats to barbershops. Elizabeth McChesney, the director of children’s services and family engagement, said this moment was remarkable because more groups are finally aligning to quickly expand the effort.

“We have seen a change in behavior in families who come to the laundromats,” she said. “Parents tell us that their babies wake up singing the songs that we taught them in story time.”

The Clinton visit lends a boost. So does early research, by child development specialist Susan Neuman of New York University, that showed children at three New York laundromats with early learning centers engaged in literacy activities at a rate 30 times that of children in businesses with no books or materials.

“It was a brief experiment, but we saw that it created a culture,” said Neuman. “We’d see parents position themselves near the center, watching, even though a lot of the learning was child-directed. A lot of children don’t have access to that kind of activity.”

At Wash Time on Wednesday, Clinton walked over to read with a group of children from a nearby child care center who’d been bused in for the occasion.

One of them plucked a magnetic H from the easel and handed it to Clinton, who had folded herself into a pint-sized couch and picked out a book to read. The book was “Knuffle Bunny,” that she said her own children liked at home.

“Oh, an H!,” Clinton said with delight. “That’s the first letter of my mom’s name, so I love that letter, too.”