Lack of nice, clean clothes can derail students. Here’s how Whatcom schools are helping.

Clothing, food and personal hygiene products for students are pictured inside the Social Services room at Options High School on Friday, Aug. 31, in Bellingham. School supplies and access to a washer, dryer and shower are also available in the room.
Clothing, food and personal hygiene products for students are pictured inside the Social Services room at Options High School on Friday, Aug. 31, in Bellingham. School supplies and access to a washer, dryer and shower are also available in the room. evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

The student showed up at Options High School for the start of school this year wearing a long sweatshirt. And no pants.

As she walked to class with Trista Moreno, the principal’s secretary who serves as a point of contact for students, the girl said, “Could we? I heard ...”

She didn’t have to say more. Moreno took the teen to the Social Services room in the middle of the school and the student picked out a pair of pants, put them on and went to class.

“A lot of times they don’t necessarily want to say they need help,” Moreno said recently while standing in the room. “It’s discreet.”

Also in the room were other pieces of donated clothing, school supplies, a washer and dryer, showers and non-perishable food.

Options isn’t alone in trying to help provide for some of their at-risk students’ basic needs, including clothing, at no cost to the students. School districts throughout Whatcom County are doing the same.

Why it matters

Giving students clean clothes or a way to launder what they’re wearing could help them stay in school, educators say.

Schools in St. Louis and Fairfield, Calif., saw students’ attendance increase dramatically after they were able to wash and dry their clothing on campus.

“Once you have your basic needs supplied, kids are going to be more ready for accessing their education. If they’re in clean good-fitting clothing, it certainly is going to help them feel better at school,” said Randy Elsbree, executive director of Federal and Special Programs for Blaine School District.

Getting kids to school is a concern nationwide, where more than 6 million students missed 15 or more days of school in 2013-14, according to a June 2016 report about chronic absenteeism from the U.S. Department of Education.

That’s about 1 in 7 students, the agency said, describing its findings as “an unprecedented look at a hidden educational crisis.”

“Students who are chronically absent — meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year — are at serious risk of falling behind in school,” the report states, adding that students who are chronically absent also are more likely to drop out of high school.

Tracking absences

Washington state tracks chronic absences as well, from first grade through 12th grade.

Students who miss school five or more days in a month or 10 or more days in a year — without having an excuse — are considered truant by state standards.

About 48 percent of the 8,899 students in Whatcom County’s public high schools had at least one unexcused absence in the 2016-17 school year, according to data from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Those were the most recent figures available.

What’s more, nearly 11 percent of public high school students in the county had 10 or more unexcused absences that year.

Truancy petitions — when schools ask juvenile court to take steps to get students to come to class — were filed for 175 Whatcom high school students in that time.

Of the 16,653 public school students in first through eighth grades in Whatcom County, 26 percent had unexcused absences in the year and a little over 1-1/2 percent had 10 or more unexcused absences. Truancy petitions were filed for 68 students.

What schools are doing

Whatcom County school districts help students who are in need, and their families, in a number of ways.

That allows families to “worry less about survival and more about getting their kids through school,” said Bob Feaster, the interim homeless liaison for the Blaine School District.

Mount Baker, Blaine and Lynden school districts all offer clothing and supplies to students who need them.

Operation School Bell, an effort of the Assistance League, gives vulnerable Whatcom County students in kindergarten through high school $100 each to spend on new clothes at Target stores.

In Lynden School District, 226 students are getting clothes through Operation School Bell, up from 212 last year.

“Providing clothing to students who otherwise could not buy new clothing does support confidence and self-esteem, and helps them feel more comfortable coming to school,” said Margaret Vailencour, the Family Community Services coordinator for Lynden School District.

OperationSchoolBell 1
Seth Aparicio, 10, and Bryant West-Mitchell, 6, try on hats while shopping for school clothes as part of Operation School Bell on Thursday, Dec. 3, at Target in Bellingham, Wash. Evan Abell eabell@bhamherald.com

At Sehome High School, laundry can be done when needed through the Lifeskills program, which has a washer and dryer.

When the new Sehome High School is completed, it will include showers, a pantry and clothing space. It also will have a washer and dryer.

The Bellingham School District found another item in demand when its Family Resource Center surveyed families a few years ago.

“The highest need was helping families purchase laundry soap, because it’s very expensive and families can’t purchase it with food stamps,” said Dana Smith, the district’s communications manager. “They can’t keep up with the demand for it at the (center).”

Families also can get vouchers so they can go do their laundry at different places and close to where they live, Smith added. The center also has helped families buy washers and dryers and has connected them to people who are donating the appliances.

Back in the Social Services room at Options High School, Principal Byron Gerard fields a question about how many students use the washer and dryer there.

“To me, it’s not about how many will do it,” Gerard said. “It’s about if only one needs it and we have the opportunity to do it, then that’s what we need to do. If one student drops out of high school because they’re embarrassed they don’t have clean clothes ... that’s one person too many.”

Options High School opened its new building to Bellingham students on the first day of school, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

Clothing Drive

What: Back-to-school clothing drive for Birchwood Elementary School students. The school and RE Sources’ Sustainable Schools program are hosting the drive.

When: Now through Friday, Sept. 14.

What’s needed: Clean, gently used items for kindergarten through fifth grade-aged students, including backpacks. Needed items include long- and short-sleeve shirts, pants and jeans, skirts and dresses, sweaters and sweatshirts, coats, shoes and hangers.

Where to donate: Collection barrels are in Bellingham at RE Sources, 2309 Meridian St.; Ragfinery, 1421 N. Forest St.; and Birchwood Elementary, 3200 Pinewood Ave.

Why: School clothes can be expensive for families, so the drive aims to reduce the stress on their finances. It also helps reduce the stress on the planet.

“RE Sources’ Sustainable Schools program is providing ways for students, teachers and families to reduce their waste, conserve water and make smarter energy choices,” said Sasha Savoian, education specialist for RE Sources.

“The textile and clothing industry contributes 10 percent of global carbon emissions, and is the second largest industrial polluter in the world. Small actions like recycling instead of trashing outgrown clothing can make a big difference to the planet, and to those who need it,” Savoian explained.

Pickup date: Students and families in need can get items during a “Back-to-School Clothing Market” from 4:15 to 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 18, at Birchwood Elementary.