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.”

buses or bust?

Mayor Duggan says bus plan encourages cooperation. Detroit school board committee wants more details.

PHOTO: Denver Post file
Fourth-graders Kintan Surghani, left, and Rachel Anderson laugh out the school bus window at Mitchell Elementary School in Golden.

Detroit’s school superintendent is asking for more information about the mayor’s initiative to create a joint bus route for charter and district students after realizing the costs could be higher than the district anticipated.

District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told a school board subcommittee Friday that he thought the original cost to the district was estimated to be around $25,000 total. Instead, he said it could cost the district roughly between $75,000 and a maximum of $125,000 for their five schools on the loop.

“I think there was a misunderstanding….” Vitti said. “I think this needs a deeper review…The understanding was that it would be $25,000 for all schools. Now, there are ongoing conversations about it being $15,000 to $25,000 for each individual school.”

The bus loop connecting charter and district schools was announced earlier this month by Mayor Mike Duggan as a way to draw kids back from the suburbs.

Duggan’s bus loop proposal is based on one that operates in Denver that would travel a circuit in certain neighborhoods, picking up students on designated street corners and dropping them off at both district and charter schools.

The bus routes — which Duggan said would be funded by philanthropy, the schools and the city — could even service afterschool programs that the schools on the bus route could work together to create.

In concept, the finance committee was not opposed to the idea. But despite two-thirds of the cost being covered and splitting the remaining third with charters, they were worried enough about the increased costs that they voted not to recommend approval of the agreement to the full board.  

Vitti said when he saw the draft plan, the higher price made him question whether the loop would be worth it.

“If it was $25,000, it would be an easier decision,” he said.

To better understand the costs and benefits and to ultimately decide, Vitti said he needs more data, which will take a few weeks. 

Alexis Wiley, Duggan’s chief of staff, said the district’s hesitation was a sign they were performing their due diligence before agreeing to the plan.

“I’m not at all deterred by this,” Wiley said. She said the district, charters, and city officials have met twice, and are “working in the same direction, so that we eliminate as many barriers as we can.”

Duggan told a crowd earlier this month at the State of the City address that the bus loop was an effort to grab the city’s children – some 32,500 – back from suburban schools.

Transportation is often cited as one of the reasons children leave the city’s schools and go to other districts, and charter leaders have said they support the bus loop because they believe it will make it easier for students to attend their schools.

But some board members had doubts that the bus loop would be enough to bring those kids back, and were concerned about giving charters an advantage in their competition against the district to increase enrollment.

“I don’t know if transportation would be why these parents send their kids outside of the district,” Angelique Peterson-Mayberry said. “If we could find out some of the reasons why, it would add to the validity” of implementing the bus loop.

Board member LaMar Lemmons echoed other members’ concerns on the impact of the transportation plan, and said many parents left the district because of the poor quality of schools under emergency management, not transportation.

“All those years in emergency management, that drove parents to seek alternatives, as well as charters,” he said. “I’m hesitant to form an unholy alliance with the charters for something like this.”

After the bell

The Detroit district plans to use teachers to run after-school programs. Youth advocates wonder why

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo

Some advocates for Detroit youth programs were alarmed last week to learn that the Detroit school district did not apply for a major state grant that pays for after-school care for more than 400 students in low-income schools.

For the past four years, the district has been using the yearly $2 million in funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants to bankroll after-school care at 15 of its schools, but after this summer, the five-year grant will run out.

The decision not to apply was deliberate, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti. He said he wants after-school programs to stop providing what he calls “pockets” of services – different offerings at different schools – and to “better align the programs to the strategic plan.”

Advocates involved with the after-school programs said the decision came as a shock to them.

“I just wish he had told us,” said one after-school advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “It’s frustrating that he’s taking this stance.”  

To apply for the state funding, the district is required to select a partner to administer the after-school care.  But instead of partnering with organizations, like the YMCA or Children’s Center, he plans to begin running after-school care with district staff.

His plan, he said, is to “offer the same, if not better,” after-school care to students “at a lower cost” while better aligning the extra instruction to what kids learn in class by using district staff—mostly teachers—to run the programs, although some partners will continue working with the district.

“Maybe not every provider should be a provider, okay?” Vitti told after-school providers and advocates when he addressed them at a meeting last week. “Maybe the services you are providing could look different” if teachers or other district employees were leading the programs.

Vitti has not always been opposed to funds from these grants. He told the Free Press last summer that the district did not have a solution in place if the funding from the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants was eliminated, which was a concern last year when President Trump said he wanted to cut the funding.

“The elimination of these programs in particular will reduce high-level programming for students…. This makes little sense when you consider the needs of our children and families,” Vitti told the Free Press.

Education advocates have serious concerns. They say expert partners can offer quality enrichment programs and academic support that districts could not provide on their own, especially if they plan on using teachers just getting off from a full day of work.

“Are teachers at their best from 3 to 7 p.m. after a full day of teaching?” said another youth advocate who asked to remain unnamed for fear of hurting her relationship with the district. “Couldn’t youth development providers help support them?”

Vitti, however, implied there’s nothing to worry about. He said after-school programs, which feed kids, help them with homework, and provide enrichment activities like arts and music instruction, would remain largely unchanged.

He said many of the grant-funded activities, like arts and music, tutoring and college prep that after-school partners had been providing will “now be provided through school personnel.”

One youth advocate said she understood the district may have issues with how the grants are handled and how the money is divided, but that the community partners want to continue offering after-school support.

“It’s hard to hear [the district thinks they can run the programs better] in Detroit when we’ve been through what we’ve been through,” said one youth advocate, “because the consistency for our kids has been us, not the district.”