Schools add laundromats to battle student absenteeism

At schools around the country, officials are tackling student absenteeism by focusing on a non-educational problem: a lack of access to laundry facilities.

At West Side High School in Newark, New Jersey Principal Akbar Cook says a lack of clean clothing was a big reason 85 percent of students at the school were absent between three to five days a month. 

"They were being bullied and it wasn't just in the building, it was on Snapchat -- I'm sitting behind you and take a picture of your collar 'look at this dirty guy,'" Cook told WCBS reporter Lisa Rozner. "So you go home and you couldn't even escape it if you were on social media."

A lack of laundry equipment at students' homes and their parents' long work hours contribute to the problem.

"I've seen kids in the back of the class talk about kids in the front of the class and how they smell and how their clothes look dirty," student Nasirr Cameron explained to WCBS.

Almost three-quarters of low-income families say they skip doing the laundry or washing dishes because of a lack of resources, according to a recent report from nonprofit group Feed America.

Cook campaigned for a $20,000 grant from utility company PSEG. He also spent the past two years working with laborers from the Newark school system to build a laundromat for students in the football team's old locker room. Laundry detergent and other essentials have been donated by members of the community. 

Appliance maker Whirlpool has pursued the idea for a number of years with help from education organization Teach for America. Its "Care Counts" program helps install washers and dryers in schools to provide laundry facilities to students who don't have access at home. 

About 90 percent of tracked students improved their attendance by six additional days compared with the prior year in two school districts where Whirpool installed laundry machines. The company, which has since expanded the program to 10 districts, found that "high risk" students increased their attendance from 82 percent to 91 percent during the term. 

Officials at West Side High School are hoping the new addition will also help make a difference in attendance at their school. 

"Some kids would come to my office, I would say we going to have to do it the old way--you have soap, you have water," school social worker Jamila Hammond told WCBS. "But now with this laundry room we don't have to do that."