In August 2016, Whirlpool announced it had found a simple solution to kids chronically missing class: Give schools washing machines.
As part of its Care Counts program, the company found that giving 17 schools in Missouri and California led to 90% of kids attending school more often and 89% greater class participation — all from kids having clean clothes to wear to school.
On May 1, Whirlpool announced it was partnering with Teach for America to expand the program to 60 total schools in 10 US school districts by August 2017.
The new regions include New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, among others.
Jennifer Tayebi, brand manager at Whirlpool, says the most rewarding part of the program has been seeing the direct effects clean clothes can have on a student’s desire to learn.
“Maybe they weren’t able to pay their electricity bill or they’re homeless,” she tells Business Insider. It’s been gratifying to see that “we can help them with something as simple as donating a washer and dryer to give them clean clothes and to help them feel better about themselves.”
Chronic absenteeism is one of the biggest problems facing America’s low-income schools. Some six million kids miss at least 15 days a year for numerous reasons: sickness, lack of interest, family responsibilities, drugs.
But a less talked-about reason is that they don’t have clean clothes, and so they feel too embarrassed to come to school dirty. They might skip days on end, setting them back academically and burdening the system overall.
During the 2015-2016 school year, teachers and other staff members told students to bring in whatever laundry they could fit in a single bag as often they needed. Parents or teachers from the school would handle the cleaning that day, at no cost to families.
University of California, Irvine, sociologist Richard Arum says the program likely saw such stellar results for two reasons.
“The direct effects would be that the students are not embarrassed to come to school because they have clean clothes,” Arum, dean of UCI’s School of Education, tells Business Insider. “The indirect mechanism would be that the program suggests to them that the larger society cares about their schooling.”
Chaketa Riddle, the assistant superintendent of the Riverview Garden School District in St. Louis, one of the participating districts, agrees. She says her experiences have taught her that before a school can raise attendance figures, let alone test scores, it needs to create a culture of safety and support.
“They feel that they belong in our school community,” Riddle says of her students. “They feel that we’re a family. They feel that we definitely support their needs and want to make a fun and positive and exciting school experience for them.”
The Care Counts program won’t necessarily bring all attendance rates to 100%. Some kids are bound to skip school for reasons that have nothing to do with cleanliness. But Tayebi says the data was so compelling that Whirlpool wants to expand the program across the US, and perhaps across the globe.
More than 900 schools reached out, from Saudia Arabia to Scotland, requesting Whirlpool bring the program to their neck of the woods.
According to Riddle, the tight-knit group of parents and counselors she’s assembled to help with the laundry program means her district is just getting started.
“You have the visible leadership teams within the schools who want to make sure that we’re eliminating any barriers that our students may have, so that they can focus on what’s most important. And that’s coming to school to receive an education,” Riddle said.