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SANDY BANKS

Without Clean Clothes, Tough for Kids to Rise and Shine

March 12, 2000|SANDY BANKS

Chris Stehr knew from the first time he laid eyes on his new school last summer that his wish list would be long on the basics. Library books, grass for the playground, a coat of paint, a new sprinkler system . . . and a washer and dryer.

The grass and sprinklers went in last fall, the painting is still underway, the library books arrived Wednesday.

And this week, the 75th Street Elementary School's laundry room will open for business, its giant washer and dryer the newest--and perhaps oddest--tools in Principal Stehr's campaign for school reform.

They might not raise test scores or send graduation rates soaring on this crowded South-Central Los Angeles campus. But the set of Speed Queens housed in a former storage room may turn out to be just as important as all the highbrow solutions proposed by curriculum experts.

Because if you don't get the kids to school, they won't learn, will they? And if they're embarrassed because their clothes are tattered or filthy or smell . . . well, they just might not show up at all.

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Stehr had heard the stories for years, from fellow teachers, principals and attendance counselors who struggle to raise dismal attendance rates at schools in the city's poorest neighborhoods. But it is hard to believe--in a city where high school girls routinely drop hundreds of dollars on trendy accessories, and boys can spend a C-note on a single pair of sneakers--that dirty clothes keep hundreds of schoolkids at home each day.

"It's not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of education problems," admits Stehr, who became principal at 75th Street Elementary in July. "But when attendance counselors visit kids' homes and hear, again and again, 'We couldn't come [to school] today because we didn't have any clean clothes to wear,' you realize how important it is.

"Maybe there are just a couple pairs of pants for all the kids in that family to share. Or somebody was sick so Mom couldn't get out to the Laundromat. Or they just ran out of money."

In fact, more than 70% of Los Angeles Unified's 700,000 kids come from families living in poverty. And school officials estimate that at least half the students on the district's poorest campuses attend school daily wearing clothes that are ragged or dirty.

Still, it wasn't until Stehr attended a national education conference that he glimpsed a possible solution to the problem, one being tried in a handful of other schools across the country.

"I met a principal who got her PTA to purchase a washer and dryer," Stehr said. "And when the kids realized that they didn't have to sit in class wearing dirty clothes . . . attendance started going up."

And while Stehr's school doesn't have a PTA, the Whittier man has developed his own unofficial booster club, made up of friends from local churches and a weekly prayer group he attends.

The group had already bought uniforms for kids who couldn't afford them, paid for the funeral of a boy killed in a drive-by shooting, and donated thousands to pay for school improvements and incentives to reward student achievement.

This time, group members pitched in to buy a $1,110 set of commercial machines, have them delivered to the school and hooked up by a local plumber. Then they purchased dozens of extra school uniforms, so that children who come to school in dirty clothes can borrow some to wear while theirs are in the wash.

Stehr hasn't figured out all the logistics yet, but he plans to rely on parent volunteers to run the machines. "We have lots of parents who are immigrants or aren't educated, and they don't feel comfortable volunteering in the classroom. But they want to help in any way they can."

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There still is a lot of work to be done at 75th Street School, a 1,700-student, year-round campus that stands in the shadow of the LAPD's 77th Street Division in one of the toughest neighborhoods of South-Central L.A.

It scores near the bottom in almost every measure of academic achievement, and suffers from a slew of long-standing morale and maintenance problems. Just last weekend, thieves bent back the bars on Stehr's office window, broke in, and stole a computer and money that had been donated to buy clothes for needy students.

But there is no shortage of good will and stout hearts, Stehr says, proudly ticking off stories of teachers who spend their own time and money to help level the playing field for their kids . . . the teacher who tutors students at their homes for free; another who organized a Boy Scout troop to expose his students to life beyond guns and drugs.

They are small things but--like clean clothes--important for the message they send to kids facing long odds but struggling to succeed: Someone here cares enough to go the extra mile to make sure I'm in my seat each day, to remove obstacles that might block my way.

That is the lesson in every bundle of clean clothes handed back to a student at the end of the day.

And there is a lesson in this story for folks like me, as well.

I'll likely spend today tethered to my washing machine, sorting piles of clothes on the garage floor . . . wading through the dozens of dirty shirts, pants and socks my three schoolgirls provide.

But when I fold those clothes and stuff them back in their drawers, ready for another week of school, I'll be grateful, not grumbling, this time.

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Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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