Across from the water cooler and next to the photocopier in Brooklyn’s PS 446 sits a washing machine and a dryer. The two unexpected appliances in the Brownsville elementary school are no accidents. Educators consider them both crucial machines in their efforts to boost their student’s confidence and to improve certain student’s attendance.
Since the machines were installed 18 months ago, teachers and staff have seen many individual children in school more regularly. But they are still waiting for the overall attendance record at PS 446 to improve. Even before COVID-19 closed all New York City schools in mid-March, its attendance was down by 5 percent.
Pre-kindergarten teacher Stacey Grubb said she noticed that at least one of her 3-year-olds began coming to school more regularly after parents realized the school had free washers.
“Since that particular child started accessing the laundry, his attendance changed,” Grubb said. “It got better because there were days when they would see he had no more clean clothes, so he didn’t come.”
At PS 446, an elementary school in the heart of Brooklyn, 95 percent of students are poor, and the school struggles with attendance. Last year, it recorded had an 84 percent attendance rate. Almost 50 percent of its students were chronically absent, meaning that they missed more than 15 days a year.
Grubb noticed that one student came to class in the same shirt a few days in a row.
“That day, the clothes were visibly soiled, and I took the child to the bathroom, and I helped get him cleaned up, and I helped him change his clothes,” she said. “When we came out, he had a nice, clean, crisp shirt on, and he was more willing to play. Before that, he was more reserved, which drew my attention in the first place. He wasn’t quite himself initially.”
Grubb let the mother know about the school’s laundry program. The mother, who has several children in the school, started dropping off her children’s dirty clothes and picking them up after school. School officers keep the process completely confidential, which Grubb said is a big help since some families might feel embarrassed.
The machines arrived at PS 446 courtesy of Care Counts, a public charity of the Whirlpool Collective Impact Fund that provides washers and dryers across the nation. Since 2015, Care Counts has provided machines to 20 cities and more than 80 schools. Five schools are in the New York area. The program is free, and Care Counts supplies detergent as well.
Care Counts reports that 75 percent of high-risk elementary school students, students with a trajectory to miss 15 or more days a year, increased their attendance after their school implemented a laundry program in the 2018 to 2019 school year. The data includes numbers from every school in the program for that year.
The attendance drop in PS 446 was one of the schools may be due to a host of other factors, especially since the school is in a neighborhood that is hit hard by homelessness, food insecurity, and poverty. School staffers also said the machines are not yet being used to their full capacity.
“I can’t guarantee it will eventually show up in those numbers,” said Amir Brann, a school social worker, referring to the effect of laundry services on attendance. Brann focuses on children in temporary housing. “It is a huge weight off their shoulders. Even if parents don’t use them now, many of them have told us how nice it is to know that it’s an option if they need it in the future. Its a real material support to families, saving a little bit of money and time.”
Parents use the machines through an appointment with the school. The school asks families only to wash children’s laundry since there is only one machine.
In the mornings and on Saturdays, parents can do laundry by themselves. They also have the option to drop off dirty clothes with the school. In the afternoon, two social workers wash and fold clothes for families. During busy times, they wash around 30 loads a month. They never wash less than 15 loads a month, they say.
As of right now, the school only notifies individual families about the program because resources are limited. The priority goes to students in temporary housing. The school currently has about 60 of its total 372 students in temporary housing, but that number can increase to about 120 at different points in the year. Teachers can also refer parents to the program.
The school uses the machines to wash the blankets that younger students use for nap time and to wash donated coats that are later given out to students. The program offers the school an opportunity to teach students practical skills, like folding their own clothes. If the child is in third grade or older, the social workers frequently bring him or her to the laundry room to learn, something they say the child is excited to do.
Teachers and parents can nominate their school and apply to the program with a grant. Brann applied to the program two years ago after Meghan Dunn, former principal, heard about it and encouraged Brann to apply.
Brann wishes the machines were used more often. He said a few flaws are preventing the school from using the laundry program to its full potential.
Some parents live too far away to lug heavy laundry bags to the school. Even if they are close by, Brann said, it can be embarrassing for parents to bring the laundry in during school hours. The school introduced Saturday hours to make it more private and easier on families, but opening on the weekends can be costly. It would also be more convenient for parents if they could do all their laundry there, not just children’s laundry.
Another significant limitation is that only two social workers help with laundry, and their schedules are already jam-packed.
“It is all about ease of access, and we need staffing,” he said. “We can’t do it all.” If more families took advantage of the program, the social workers might become completely overwhelmed.