- Associated Press - Thursday, October 27, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Two teams of third-graders raced to separate the reds from the whites. They fished a pink sock out of a pile of T-shirts and removed 10 shirts from the dryer to fold them as fast as possible.

The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/2ezsfEQ ) reports the newest equipment donated to Roger Q. Mills Elementary in East Oak Cliff doesn’t help students learn to read better or complete a math problem faster.

It cleans their clothes. And for some kids, that could mean the difference between staying home or going to school, or feeling like they belong or like they’re an outcast.

Marna Alisawi, 9, captained the red team at the competition, which celebrated the donation of a washer and dryer to the school from Conn’s HomePlus. Marna’s team lost but she congratulated the winners.

She said that earlier this school year, a boy in her class ridiculed her friend, accusing her of wearing the same unwashed clothes every day. Marna told him to leave her friend alone.

“Kids are perceptive. Whether or not they verbalize it, you can see it,” said Tonya Clark, the school’s principal. “Some kiddos they sulk, some shy away from the opportunity to shine in the classroom.”

The average family in East Oak Cliff doesn’t own a washer or dryer, Clark said.

The new equipment won’t be for all children. A student support team will identify students in need of laundry assistance.

Clothes will be washed on an “as needed” basis. The school has a uniform closet on hand so they can lend clean clothes to the student for the day, while they wash and return personal uniforms to the families within the week.

Clark said unclean clothes can contribute to absenteeism. “We can’t teach them if they’re not here,” she said.

The problem isn’t specific to Mills. A washer and dryer set is one of the three most requested items in Dallas ISD, according to the district’s school needs survey. Tom Hayden, manager for Dallas ISD’s volunteer and partnership services, said 50 of the district’s 227 schools are asking for them, mostly in the elementary grades.

A few decades ago, Hayden sat in the same classroom where the laundry relay race occurred, in hand-me-down jeans that hadn’t been washed for a week. It used to be his homeroom when he attended the school.

“I know this still happens today,” he said. “I know what these kids are facing.”

Hayden remembers walking six blocks with a pillowcase over his shoulder to the local laundromat, which he said “wasn’t always the safest place for a 6-year-old to be.” Sometimes he would be there at midnight.

He now lives in Plano and thinks his neighbors would view laundry as something “so basic, it wouldn’t even cross their mind.” But to him, “It’s such a major but simple thing to have.” He tells his 8-year-old all the time, “You just don’t know how good you have it.”

Last year, Whirlpool worked with a developmental psychologist to start and study a pilot program that provided about 2,000 loads of clean clothes to students across two school districts in St. Louis and Fairfield, California. They found 90 percent of students improved their attendance, averaging 6.1 more days in school than the previous year, according to Whirlpool.

Larry Terry, director of the Urban Service, Education and Research for Communities with Hope Institute at the University of North Texas at Dallas, has also been researching the issue.

Terry is piloting an initiative in the Jubilee Park neighborhood in South Dallas that allows students to exchange dirty uniforms at the end of the week for clean ones.

He said children should “come to school with the basic sense of dignity that every kid deserves.”

Terry said the annual median income in the community surrounding Mills is under $20,000.

“It’s a tough choice to choose between laundry or feeding your family,” Terry said.

At Mills, teaching assistant LaToya Lennix estimated that maybe three out of every 20 students come to school with unclean clothes.

“We have children come to school filthy on a Monday,” Lennix said. “Dirty shoes, dirty socks, dirty pants, dirty shirt.”

“If we have the capability to maybe wash and at least provide them with a clean outfit once or twice a week, it’s better than nothing,” Lennix said.

Lennix, who previously worked as a parent liaison at the school for three years, knows their concerns firsthand. Transportation is a huge issue, she said, because most families don’t own a vehicle and public transportation in the area is poor.

Lennix occasionally does two or three loads of laundry for families - not just uniforms - at her home.

One parent once called on a Saturday and asked her for a ride to the laundromat. “It’s a mile for her but the walk with 12 loads of laundry is forever,” Lennix said.

Lennix said she wants to help because she was a single parent for a long time and can relate. She had two children before she was 20 and remembers the struggle laundry entailed. Ten years ago, she still had to ask to borrow gas money to visit the laundromat.

Mills is one of seven schools included in Dallas ISD’s Accelerating Campus Excellence plan. As part of the initiative, the district pulls its best resources to schools that need them the most.

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, there was an overhaul of staff at Mills. Clark, the current principal, arrived and only four people from the pre-existing teaching staff returned.

Laundry is just the latest service the school offers their families in need.

The school already provides breakfast in the classroom and dinner for when children stay late.

Last December, the school partnered with a nonprofit for a fundraiser that required donated coats as entry. They collected almost 100. Around the same time, a grandmother in the community knitted 100 winter hats for children. Lennix remembers distributing them.

“I’d hug them, put the hat on their head, hug them and love them and say OK, you wear this hat home and I better see it tomorrow because it’s gonna be cold again,” she said.

Lennix said the school will probably need more donations as winter approaches. “It’s getting ready to be cold, and I know these kids don’t have coats.”

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com


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