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Clean confidence

UCS free laundry program helps build self-esteem
New York Teacher
A woman wearing a white sweater holds up laundry cards
Erica Berger

School counselor Robin Chapman-Rodriguez shows laundry cards that can be used by United Community Schools families at Clean Rite laundromats. 

Curtis HS on Staten Island has a dance program, and students who participate remove their shoes. One day, a student asked school counselor Robin Chapman-Rodriguez if she had any socks. “Why?” she asked.

He said, “because I have to dance and I don’t have on clean socks.”

“That broke my heart,” Chapman-Rodriguez said. She bought a big package of socks to keep in her locker, and the student occasionally asks for a pair. “He loves to dance, but he refused to take his shoes off,” she said.

Some of the UFT’s 32 United Community Schools have laundry facilities on site, but a new six-month pilot program and partnership between UCS and Clean Rite laundromats will allow students and their families at five schools in four boroughs, including Curtis, to do laundry in their own neighborhoods. UCS will use City Council funding to pay for laundry cards that can be used at Clean Rite locations, where families can do their laundry without any stigma.

Card distribution began the week of Nov. 8, and selected families will get monthly cards, said Shell Lewis, one of two UCS program managers coordinating the initiative. “The program’s objective is to help support and boost attendance,” Lewis said.

Washing machines can be a powerful tool to reduce student absence from school, especially in underserved and under-resourced areas, Lewis said. UCS community school directors will track participants’ attendance and gather data from teachers.

School teams, led by the community school director, selected students based on teacher referrals, financial and housing issues, attendance and proximity to Clean Rite locations. Each $60 card can be used toward washers and dryers or the purchase of detergent at these laundromats.

“We take a lot of things for granted,” said Chapman-Rodriguez. “Laundry cards are just one small thing that can help a family. And if a family is struggling, that’s major. If students can come to school with clean clothes, smelling good, that builds such self-esteem.”

The program also frees up family funds for other things, including food.

Students wear uniforms at PS 599 in Ocean Hill, Brooklyn, a participating school where Saisha Braithwaite is a teacher and the chapter leader. Families often keep children home when their uniforms are unwashed, she said, or they may send them to school out of uniform.

“Sometimes being out of uniform makes the student feel self-conscious,” she said.

The program “will help with the kids’ confidence,” said Braithwaite. When students are dressed alike, “it puts all the kids on an even playing field,” she explained, “and for those who have clothing concerns, it takes the focus off that and they’re able to focus on their work.”

The other participating schools are PS 40 and PS 335, both in Brooklyn, and PS 369 in the Bronx.