Clean

With clean clothes, this Detroit school sees a new attitude and improved attendance

Last year, administrators at the A.L. Holmes Academy of Blended Learning struggled to get children to come to school every day. More than half the schools’ students – 60 percent – were chronically absent, missing more than 15 school days, and 160 students were suspended the first half of the school year.

This school year has been different. Absences are down at least 10 percent, and suspensions — which contribute to absences and may be exacerbated by children falling behind — have dropped to 60, school officials reported.

What changed? The school added a washing machine.

Across the country, there has been a growing awareness that making simple adjustments at schools to address students’ basic needs can affect students’ ability to succeed. Having clean clothes, deodorant, feminine products and extra uniforms, clothes, coats and gloves can remove some of the barriers that prevent children — particularly poor children — from fully participating in the classroom.

Most directly, educators have found that providing life essentials encourages attendance, one of the most surefire ways to promote learning and students’ engagement.

Yet Holmes’ addition of an on-site washing machine is an anomaly among Detroit schools, which suffer from the highest rate of chronic absenteeism in the country, according to an Associated Press analysis of the nation’s 100 largest school districts released in June 2016.

In some ways, that is not surprising. Detroit’s main school district has endured decades of inadequate school funding, control by state-appointed emergency managers, and turmoil that has left the city’s public schools among the most challenged in the nation. How can a district lacking books, supplies, and teachers with constantly changing leadership, personnel and philosophies, even get to that level of educational service?

Yet Holmes has done it, and to great effect.

“If we help remove these barriers,” said Tammy Mitchell, Holmes’ principal for three years, “students feel comfortable coming to us and asking for what they need. So they don’t have to avoid school, go to class, and not have clean clothes, deodorant, or not feel good about themselves.”

“It gives them the confidence to be ready to learn. They don’t have to be self-conscious and worried about somebody talking about or bullying them.”

Eighth grader Antoine Harris enjoys the washer at school.

That’s been the experience of Antione Harris, an energetic eighth grader at Holmes, who sometimes loses his clothes and forgets to wash his school and basketball uniforms. The school’s clothes closet and laundry program make him feel wanted, he said.

“It makes me feel comfortable, like I’m welcome at this school,” said Harris, who continued attending the school with his twin brother, Anthony, despite relocating to Warren. “I feel like I’m at home, and that’s why I would choose this school over any other school.”

“Everybody has an opportunity to do something here,” he said.

Parent Lamar Perdue volunteers to wash and dry clothes.

Lamar Perdue, Holmes’ parent teacher association president, also serves as a hall monitor and is one of the volunteers who washes the students’ clothes and transports them to the laundromat to be dried (the school is hoping for the donation of a dryer). He said he’s noticed the difference the single machine has made.

“They feel uplifted because some of them don’t have,” he said. “When they get a clean uniform, a new uniform, it makes them feel better. I see more smiles and bright attitudes.”

Nearly 58 percent of Detroiters in the main district were chronically absent in the 2013-14 school year compared to a national average of 13 percent, the AP report said. The federal government defines chronic absenteeism as missing 15 days or more in a school year – whether those days out are excused or not.

Children who miss a lot of school tend to be from low-income families, state education data show, which means that many start school already behind.

Education experts say chronic absenteeism, which starts as early as preschool, increases the chances children won’t be able to read sufficiently by third grade; will fail classes in middle school; and will drop out of high school.

Offering students laundry services has caught on in recent years. The idea has worked in cities such as St. Louis, where an elementary school principal appealed to Whirlpool, the washing machine maker, after discovering students weren’t coming to school because they didn’t have clean clothes. Their families didn’t have the money for a washer or a laundromat — and sometimes they lacked water or electricity. When Whirlpool delivered a washer and dryer, attendance and attitudes at the school almost immediately improved, a Whirlpool spokeswoman said.

Wondering if this was a fluke, Whirlpool surveyed 600 teachers with similar concerns and soon after launched its Care Counts laundry program, which donates a washer, dryer, laundry bags and detergent for children to bring laundry to school and get it cleaned. It has been so successful that in the 2016-17 academic year, a survey of teachers around the country about Care Counts reported that 95 percent of participants were more motivated in class, and more likely to interact with peers and participate in extracurricular activities. Besides that, the most at-risk students showed up for school an average of nearly two more weeks than the previous year.

In just a few months after the start of the Care Counts pilot program, more than 1,000 teachers and principals reached out seeking washers and dryers. Today, the laundry program serves nearly 60 schools across the country in 10 cities, and Whirlpool is making plans to expand the program this year, a Whirlpool spokesperson, said.

Washers and dryers have also become a popular request on DonorsChoose.org, a crowdfunding site that connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help. Holmes obtained its washer through DonorsChoose.org off a request written by Serena Horton, Holmes’ academic engagement administrator. Now, Horton is hoping to get a dryer.

“A lot of times, at the beginning of the school year, everybody wants to donate school supplies,” Horton said. “But being clean, having clean clothing – uniforms, toiletries, and resources to wash the clothing like a washer and detergent – is what really affects attendance.”

“Kids will come to school without school supplies,” she added.

Besides the laundry service, the school maintains a closet with clean uniform pants and shirts, toiletries; and warm clothing like coats and gloves, supplied by a DonorsChoose.org grant, parents and community support.

“If you smell bad, you don’t feel good, and other kids can be mean sometimes,” said Mitchell, the principal. “That shuts them off and it also plays a part in their behavior because if I know that something is wrong with me, I come in defensive, I come in ready to fight. So if I come in and I feel good about myself, I come in ready to be a student.”

Initiatives to address students’ social needs have increased so much that DonorsChoose.org expanded its site a year ago to address what the company refers to as “student life essentials” — projects for clean clothes, cold weather gear, shoes, eyewear, food for the evenings and weekends, personal hygiene items and laundry supplies, said spokesman Chris Pearsall.

“We have seen a good number of washer and dryer requests, many to help students – and sometimes their families – with laundry because they don’t have easy or affordable access to laundry facilities at home,” Pearsall said. “Other reasons might include machines for washing sports uniforms, teaching life skills, or helping young students who have accidents at school.

“We know these are all items that students from low-income families need,” Pearsall said, in order “to be able to focus at school – or sometimes simply attend – and our teachers have shared the profound changes they’ve seen from students who’ve simply been able to practice good self-care.”

Pearsall said DonorsChoose.org is now exploring options for adding commercial grade washers to its list of available products because of five recent requests from across the country, including from New York City, a Native American reservation in South Dakota, California — and Detroit.

“If you don’t address the social and emotional issues that come along with not having clean clothes, not having food, you can’t get to the part of why we’re here, the academic part,” said Mitchell, who chose teaching 20 years ago instead of a computer science when she discovered her niece couldn’t read in the fifth grade.

“We can’t concern ourselves with what’s not happening at home,” she said. “We have to do what we can to make sure it’s happening here.”

Timely Decision

Detroit school board approves 2018-19 academic calendar after union agrees to changes

PHOTO: Hero Images
Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers agreed to calendar changes to do what's best for students.

The Detroit school board approved this year’s academic calendar Tuesday night, hours after Detroit’s main district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement.

The calendar approval, which comes just three weeks before the first day of school, includes some changes to the original calendar spelled out in the teachers’ contract.  The new calendar was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and it was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

After discussion with the district, the union signed an agreement on the changes, known as a memorandum of understanding.

The calendar eliminates one-hour-early releases on Wednesdays and moves the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also will move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said the situation was not ideal, and he realizes that some teachers may already have made plans for the week of April 19-26.

“Hopefully, our teachers realize they should be there,” he said. But if vacation plans were already made and can be changed, “that’s good.”

“We will be prepared as much as possible to have substitutes and even district staff, if it’s necessary,” he said.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said teachers aren’t pleased about the agreement.

“No, we were not happy with the change,” Bailey said.

Addressing a question from board member LaMar Lemmons, Bailey said the calendar changes “did constitute an unfair labor practice” because, among other reasons, teachers lost preparation days with the new calendar.

“We are not happy, but we are here for students,” Bailey said. “We understand this is what’s right for students. We put students first, and we are going to work it out.”

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT.

Other changes to the calendar include eliminating scheduled parent-teacher conferences on October 31 because of the Halloween celebration.

calendar quandary

Detroit district and union hammer out last-second agreement on school calendar before vote at tonight’s board meeting

A screenshot of the proposed academic calendar that has caused concern among union officials.

Detroit’s main school district and its largest teachers union settled a contract disagreement Tuesday afternoon after tensions arose over the seemingly routine approval of this year’s academic calendar.

The proposed calendar includes some changes to the one spelled out in the teachers’ contract. It was approved last week by a school board subcommittee without comment from the union, and the same calendar was on the agenda for tonight’s meeting of the full school board.

With just three weeks until the first day of school, parents and teachers are relying on the calendar to make travel plans and childcare arrangements.

No details were available about the agreement.

Ken Coleman, a spokesman for the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the agreement was resolved before the meeting started, but couldn’t provide further details. District spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said she expected the calendar to go to a vote without opposition from the union.

Coleman said earlier on Tuesday that a vote to approve the calendar could violate the teachers’ contract.

Union leaders were surprised last week when Chalkbeat reported that the board was considering a calendar that was different from the one approved in their contract.

The proposed calendar would eliminate one-hour-early releases on Wednesday and move the teacher training that occurred during that time mostly to the beginning of the school year. It also would move spring break to April 1-5, 2019 — a few weeks earlier than the April 19-26 break specified in the contract.

The earlier spring break is designed to avoid the testing window for the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, a college entrance exam commonly known as the PSAT, according to school board documents.

Union officials have said that they had no major objections to the contents of the calendar, only to the way in which it was approved.

Correction: Aug. 14, 2018 This story has been corrected to show that the union and district have reached an agreement about the academic calendar.  A previous version of the story, under the headline “An 11th-hour disagreement over an academic calendar could be settled at tonight’s school board meeting,” referenced a pending agreement when an agreement had in fact been reached.