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, a crowdfunding site that connects teachers in high-need communities with donors who want to help. Holmes obtained its washer through 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 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 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 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.”

call for more

Almost half of Detroit district schools don’t have a gym teacher. Next year, that may change.

Students during PE class at Lyn Knoll Elementary School in 2016 in Aurora, Colorado. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Since 10-year-old Hezekiah Haynesworth moved to his new school in the Detroit district, he’s always up out of his seat, talking to classmates and getting into trouble.

His mother, Victoria, says he wasn’t always like this. She believes he has nowhere to burn off excess energy because Bagley Elementary doesn’t offer students enough time for gym class or recess.

Bagley Elementary is one of 49 schools in the district without a gym teacher. Out of the 106 schools in the district, only 57 have at least one certified, full-time physical education teacher, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat.

The district employs 68 certified full-time physical education teachers for its student population of 50,875. More than 15,000 Detroit schoolchildren attend a school without a full time physical education teacher.

In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified, which means some kids, like Hezekiah, might only go once a month or less.

“He’s had behavior issues, but if he had the gym time there’s different activities he would do to burn off energy,” she said. “They would get that anxiety and fidgetiness out of them.”

Haynesworth might get her wish. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti announced earlier this month that there’s money in the budget to put gym teachers back in schools, along with art and music teachers and guidance counselors next school year, though the budget plan has not yet been approved.

“Not every student is provided an opportunity for physical education or gym” right now, Vitti said at a meeting earlier this month.

The district has almost 200 teacher vacancies, and giving schools money for a gym teacher doesn’t mean a school will be able to hire one.

But Vitti said he has several efforts in the works, like more recruiting trips and better hiring practices, to address the difficulties of finding and bringing in new employees.

Detroit is not the only district that has cut back on physical education teachers in recent years. At a time when schools are heavily judged by how well students perform on math and reading exams, some schools have focused their resources on core subjects, cutting back on the arts and gym and cutting recess to make more time for instruction and test prep. But experts say that approach is short-sighted.

Research on the importance of physical activity in schools has reached a consensus — physical education improves children’s focus and makes them better students.

“Available evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the academic topics that are most influenced by physical activity,” according to a 2013 federal report.

The link between physical education and improved reading is especially important for the Detroit district. Educators are working in high gear, in part pushed by Vitti, to prepare for the state’s tough new law that will go into effect in 2020, requiring third-graders who don’t read at grade level to be held back.

This year, the Michigan Department of Education has started to include data on physical education in schools into its school scoring system, which allows parents to compare schools. A separate score for physical education might push schools to hire physical education teachers.

Whether the state’s new emphasis on gym class or Vitti’s proposal to place a gym teacher in each district school is enough to put physical activity back in the schools is unclear, but Hezekiah’s mom Victoria desperately hopes it happens.

Hezekiah is given 45 minutes to each lunch, and if he finishes early, he’s allowed to run with the other children who finished early. If he doesn’t eat quickly enough to play, Victoria says she can expect a call about his disruptive behavior.

“I used to think that my son was just a problem — that it was just my problem,” she said. “But it’s a system problem. They don’t have the components they should have in the school.”

See which schools have gym teachers below.

come together

Detroit school chief wants to eliminate small high schools at Cody, Carson, and Mumford

PHOTO: Getty images
Detroit's superintendent proposed eliminating smaller schools at Cody, Mumford and Crockett high schools

After a nearly 10-year experiment to run multi-school campuses in several Detroit high school buildings, the superintendent is recommending consolidating them back into single-school campuses to save money.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told board members at a finance committee meeting this month that consolidating the schools would save the district almost $2 million by eliminating overlap in positions such as principals and other administrators.

If the full board accepts Vitti’s recommendation later this spring, the structure of a number of high schools would change.

Cody High School would go back to a single school that would try to incorporate the focus that exists in three smaller schools: Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, Cody-Medicine and Community Health Academy, and the Cody-Academy of Public Leadership.

Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine, which shares a building with Crockett Career and Technical Center, would be merged under Vitti’s proposal.

The proposal also calls for the Mumford Academy to be folded into the larger Mumford High School. The Academy opened in 2015 as part of the state recovery district, which operated Mumford at the time.

Finance committee chair Sonya Mays compared the duplication in these schools to the proliferation of charters: dozens of schools are separately doing work once done by a centralized administration.

“I support combining the schools, strictly from an operational perspective,” Mays said, noting that the academic committee would need to consider the impact on student learning and curriculum.

“If you look at the city of Detroit landscape, and the number of charters we have, one of the things that I think gets lost in the conversation about school choice is just how much administrative duplication we’ve caused in Michigan,” she said.

More than a decade ago, smaller schools with fewer than 500 students became a national trend. Billionaire philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates’ foundation blamed huge, impersonal schools for low graduation rates, especially in poor neighborhoods of color.

Starting in 1999, the Gates foundation poured more than $3 billion into supporting smaller schools until it learned through its own study that the size of schools didn’t matter when it came to student performance — even though graduation rates and school performance improved in some districts such as New York. But because of the limited results, the foundation ultimately pulled back funding, which left school districts across the country struggling to pay for the costlier models. (Gates also supports Chalkbeat.)

The Detroit district did not receive any funding from Gates. But in 2010, the General Motors Foundation awarded a five-year grant for $27 million to help create and support small schools in the Detroit district.

Mary Kovari was principal at the former Cody-Detroit Institute of Technology College Prep High School, one of the small high schools at Cody. She said the idea of small schools could have worked, but they were expensive to create and sustain.

“You’re creating a small school, but you still have to do the same thing as a larger school,” said Kovari, now deputy director of the Detroit Bar Association.

At the committee meeting, Vitti estimated the school mergers could save $1.1 million at Cody, $735,000 to $825,000 at Mumford and $100,000 to $200,000 at Crockett/Carson. Earlier in the meeting, the superintendent presented an expensive proposal to the committee that called for counselors, gym teachers, arts or music teachers and a dean of culture in every school. Merging these schools is part of how he proposes to pay for that.

Already gone are the three small high schools formerly co-existing inside Osborn High School.

All three Osborn schools were on the state’s closure list last year after years of low test scores. Vitti said when he visited shortly after starting with the district last spring, it was clear that those schools “had to shift.” The board supported his proposal to merge those schools. When Osborn opened in September, it was again a single school.

“It’s hard to create the vision that we want … and have multiple [administrative] individuals within one building,” Vitti said.

Committee member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said she agreed with the merger at Cody, but raised concerns about losing the ninth grade academy at Mumford.

“Parents at Mumford like the ability to have the ninth grade separate because the kids are mentally and emotionally just not ready [for high school],” she said. “But whether it’s two principals or one, I just want to preserve the ninth grade academy type program.”

Charlonda Love, who has a daughter in 10th grade at Mumford Academy, a school within Mumford High School, has mixed feelings about the plan to merge the schools.

Her daughter has enjoyed the benefits of the smaller school, such as getting more attention from her teachers in an environment where everyone seems to know her name. When her daughter told her teachers that Love’s car was stolen last year, they raised money to help her buy a new one. Love doesn’t believe that would have happened at a larger school.

On the other hand, when Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond visited Mumford High School, her daughter, a basketball player, didn’t get to meet him because she was a Mumford Academy student.

“It has pros and cons,” Love said. “At Mumford Academy, they do have more one-on-one relationships inside the school. They have better relationships with the students and the parents. This idea can be good and bad, but right now I think, in some instances, it’s OK they’re going back to one school.”

The proposal to merge schools will go next to the school board’s academic committee, which will to consider how merging the schools would affect student learning. Vitti’s proposal could go to the full board later this spring.