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An LAUSD school battles chronic absenteeism with washers and dryers

Jinge Li | July 9, 2024

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For most students, having clean clothes to wear to school is not a problem. 

But for many families at 112th St. S.T.E.A.M. Academy in Watts, a pair of clean pants and a shirt is such a struggle that it has become one of the main contributors to chronic absenteeism, which is when students miss 15 or more days or classes. 

“Children can be brutally honest sometimes,” said principal Jose Hernandez.   “…When kids come with dirty or smelly clothes, the other kids will definitely point it out to them,” making them targets of bullying.

For years, Hernandez and his staff have been helping families work through this issue.  Hernandez once helped a family without a working washer by providing clothing for their child. He has also given families money for their needs, including for laundry expenses. 

In May, the school was one 20 that received a new washing machine and dryer from the Rams NFL football team and the Think Watts Foundation; along with $2 million in clothing to schools serving low income students. Earlier this year, LAUSD also announced a mobile laundry service for homeless students as part of the district’s attempt to combat chronic absenteeism. 

Hernandez hopes the machines will ease the pressure on parents and make it easier for students to return to school. 

In an interview with LA School Report, Hernandez talked about his challenging upbringing and how it shapes his commitment to his students; and why small things, like a washing machine, can create a big impact.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

LA School Report: What’s your relationship with 112th St. S.T.E.A.M. Academy? 

Jose Hernandez: I grew up very near Watts, just two miles from where I’m teaching now. Many of the children here are going through situations similar to what I experienced as a child. I grew up in a sometimes dysfunctional household. My father was an alcoholic, while my mom, bless her soul, always worked really hard to make sure we had a roof over our heads and proper clothing for school. My dad was in and out of the picture because of his alcoholism. However, when I was 13, he stopped drinking, got a stable job, and improved his ways, which helped me have a somewhat normal upbringing during my teenage years.

When I see my students coming to school, I see myself and my sisters in all of these kids. So when someone tells me, “Mr. Hernandez, this kid has a problem and will not learn,” they’re talking about me. I don’t want to hear that at 112, and I’ll be unapologetic about it. I’ll tell them, “Don’t ever say that one kid at my school cannot learn or cannot behave. The problem is with us. We need to fix it so that he can learn and behave.” Because if you’re talking about him, you’re talking about me. At 112, that’s my relationship with these kids. I say it again and again: At 112, we are here to serve.

Tell us about your school demographic.  

My school community’s demographics are approximately 69% Latino students and about 31% African American students. Over 95% of my students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The school is also fed by the Nickerson Gardens housing projects, the second-largest housing project west of the Mississippi River. Many of my kids live in the projects often for generations, and they come with a lot of baggage. They’ve seen things that many of us can only imagine and more.

At 112, we constantly battle chronic absenteeism and strive to foster empathy among our students, ensuring they support and are not mean to one another. This is a daily effort. We build their empathetic side at school, but they return to the community and hear other influences, making it an uphill battle, like fighting against the current.

Despite the challenges, we have wonderful families here who value education. They want their children to use education as a stepping stone to move to more affluent neighborhoods. Many see education as a means of moving out of the projects.

How does not having clean clothes contribute to chronic absenteeism?

Students and children can be brutally honest sometimes, and when kids come with dirty or smelly clothes, the other kids will definitely point it out to them. They’re not going to sugarcoat it. They’ll definitely just say, “Why do your clothes smell so bad?” or “Why are your clothes always dirty?” This definitely impacts students’ self-confidence, making it an environment where kids don’t want to be. Why would you want to be in a place where people make you feel bad about yourself? This is definitely a contributing factor to kids not wanting to be in school.

Especially as kids move up the grades, this becomes more significant. At our school, we have classes from Transitional Kindergarten all the way up to fifth grade. First graders when they are told they’re stinky or something like that, but they usually just blow it off and keep playing. But a fourth grader or a fifth grader who hears that they’re clothes are stinky or soiled is going to think twice about it. At that age, they hold what their peers say in very high regard.

Could you provide an example to help better understand the problem these families face?

I had a situation where a particular family in my community had no washer. I gave the kid clothing because I didn’t want him to be bullied or made to feel bad by his classmates. I talked to the mom, and she shared with me that her washer wasn’t running, so I offered to try to get it fixed for her.

I got a technician and paid him personally for it to get it fixed. 

The technician went into the house to check the unit, and later he called me and said, “Mr. Hernandez, I checked the unit, but to fix it, I need to order a specific part that costs over $350. However, I must be honest with you, even if I change that part, there’s no guarantee it will run for a long period because the unit is full of roaches. When I opened it up, there were a lot of roaches, and I don’t know if they were eating at the connections or what. I don’t want to take your money and provide a temporary fix because, two or three months from now, you’ll be in the same situation due to the roach problem.”

That’s very difficult to hear. It’s hard. So, we’ve been working with that particular family to try to schedule them to use our new washer and dryer when it is installed. In the meantime, we’ve working on getting her to a laundromat.  

How did the school handle these issues before the LA Rams and the Think Watts Foundation donated the washing machine set?

That’s a two-part answer. First, we try to ensure that the children have adequate clothing for school to build up their confidence. Second, we talk to the kids who are around them or who might be making them feel uncomfortable, encouraging them to be more empathetic towards their classmates to prevent them from hurting others’ feelings. Maybe they don’t mean to, but it’s important that they don’t continue to hurt these kids’ feelings.

We have some donated items here at the school, and we often make sure to change them out for the clothing they are wearing. They take both the clean clothes we’ve given them and their old clothes back home. Additionally, we reach out to the parents to find out the actual issue, such as why “little Jose” is coming to school in soiled clothing. We try to get to the root of the problem. Sometimes we hear stories like, “We don’t have a washer and dryer right now,” or “We’re not getting the check, so finances are tight and we don’t have money for the laundromat,” or “Someone is sick and can’t get out of bed or the wheelchair to go to the laundromat around the corner to clean the clothes.”  Sometimes I’ll visit a family and donate $20 or $30 so they can get at least a few loads of laundry done and dried, alleviating the problem for that week. 

What is this going to look like when it opens? 

Access is going to be limited because we can’t have everybody come in and use it. With wear and tear, things will eventually break down. However, we will have a system in place. I’ve been discussing it with my team, though nothing is set in stone yet. It will be appointment-only and managed through our Parent Center, which serves as our community liaison center. 

An employee will oversee the process to ensure proper use of the machines. This oversight is crucial for maintaining their functionality. Access won’t be open to everyone; there needs to be a structured system. I will also incorporate teacher input since they know the students best and work closely with them daily.

Is it going to be free? 

Currently, it’s completely free. We have enough detergent for several months and are conducting a recycling program at the school site. The funds generated from recycling will be used to purchase more detergent and support the Wellness Center’s resources for the washer and dryer.

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