June 4, 2017

Editorial: In Worcester, a lesson in laundry and kindness

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Flickr / Daniel M. Hendricks

Sometimes the simplest solutions can make the biggest difference.

School supplies don’t usually come with spin cycles and buzzers. But a washer and dryer installed at Sullivan Middle School this year have made a difference for some students.

The administration is impressed enough that four more schools are in line to get the appliances next year.

The idea is less absenteeism, better student self-esteem, dignity — and knocking down small problems head-on so that schools can address the big stuff of teaching academic fundamentals and shaping futures.

It’s working, according to Sullivan Middle Principal Josephine Robertson.

The school, like others in economically depressed sections of the city, has a relatively large percentage of students who are disadvantaged in various, sometimes hidden, ways. One not-so-subtle disadvantage is dirty, pungent clothes worn maybe several days in a row.

Whether the problem stems from a lack of laundry facilities, time, money, attention or organization in their home environment, the result is distraction in the school setting.

Emotions and sensitivity, remember, run high in that age group. Some students even decide to skip school, adding to a debilitating absenteeism problem the Worcester school district is fighting.

Sullivan Middle installed its washer and dryer before the start of the current school year, using money from fundraising. Robertson put the school’s wraparound coordinator, Ivelis Macaruso, in charge of assisting students who wish to use them.

According to a NECN report last week, the matter is handled discreetly. In a typical week a total of about 10 loads of laundry are done. Macaruso said students bring laundry in their backpacks and if they’re doing a load, will move the clothes from the washer to the dryer at lunchtime. At the end of the school day they collect their clean, dry clothes and take them home.

“It empowers them,” she said. “They like doing the laundry. They feel more comfortable and they are happier.”

Meanwhile, “We have had a significant improvement in our attendance record,” Robertson told NECN.

She explained the school’s reasoning for bringing in the machines this way: “We are social, we are emotional, we are physical — we are all those things. And when each and every element of the child is supported, then we have a successful person.”

That positive philosophy has long been demonstrated by Superintendent Maureen F. Binienda, who instituted a food pantry, health center, clothing exchange and other practical measures while principal at South High Community School.

It’s infectious. The brand of practical, kid-first, can-do wisdom exemplified by Binienda, Robertson and others in the system engenders enthusiasm inside and outside school walls, and respect and support from the community.

University of Massachusetts Medical School Chancellor Michael F. Collins, hearing about the issue recently from Binienda, arranged for his institution to help pay for widening the initiative to other district schools. The Telegram & Gazette reported that, for the coming school year, Binienda plans to put washers and dryers in four schools in the city’s north quadrant.

In addition to helping some needy students routinely, the machines will likely come in handy for mishaps during the school day, such as food spills, rainy weather and other adolescent concerns.

It’s important to note they have not cost public money. Our schools have an important list of wishes, of course — better-paid teachers, up-to-date books, top-notch training, more civic and cultural offerings on the curriculum and a safe learning environment — but a few washers and dryers paid for with donations are not draining resources that would help pay for other needs and desires.

For some, laundry facilities in schools may be an easy idea to scoff at. But we think this solution shows simplicity, practicality and compassion — qualities that always wear well.

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