OWATONNA — A new washer and dryer at the Owatonna Alternative Learning Center have been getting a lot of use, according to Principal Jim Kiefer. Installed in August with funding from the 761 Foundation, Kiefer estimated that students now do four to five cycles of laundry per day, switching loads in between classes.

Kiefer applied for a grant from the foundation — a nonprofit that helps fund programs around the district — this past spring, after noticing that lack of access to hygiene was one factor contributing to student absences.

“We had students that were not showing up to school, or when they were showing up they were very self-conscious,” he explained. “When I heard about the grant, I thought this would be a great way to address that need.”

At an Oct. 28 school board meeting, Kiefer noted that between 20 and 25% of ALC students qualify as “in transition.” According to school social worker Liz Morsching, families in transition are those who would typically be identified as homeless.

“It could be people who are staying with a family member where they’re not paying rent,” she explained, adding that situations vary greatly from student to student. Morsching added that the updated terminology helps eliminate some of the stigma surrounding not having a permanent residence.

Apart from students who may not have their own place to do laundry, the set-up has proven helpful for those who walk to school. Teens can borrow clean clothes from the school and throw soaked gear into the dryer for a spin before heading to class, said Kiefer.

Within the district, the ALC isn’t the only facility to have a washer and dryer available for students’ use. When the new McKinley Elementary School was built a few years back, Principal Justin Kiel said that a laundry set-up was part of the plan.

“Really, it was for students who needed assistance with washing, where the kids were wearing the same clothes to school or they couldn’t get to a laundromat or facility,” said Kiel, noting that 6% of McKinley’s student body qualifies as in transition. “Another reason was just that we run into issues where the lost and found is dirty or we have lice. It was to assist with cleanliness”

Kiel said the school now has a process for getting students access to the washer and dryer. When a teacher or staff member thinks a student may have need of the facility, a social worker reaches out to the child’s family to set up an initial conversation. If it’s decided that being able to do laundry at school would be beneficial, McKinley takes care of the washing.

At the ALC, science teacher Kim Penning has also used the new washing machine as a way to teach students how to make their own laundry detergent.

“I try to teach life skills, and I make laundry soap at home for a fraction of the cost,” she explained. “I thought, ‘How about I bring this into my classes?’”

Because each batch lasts such a long time — Penning said you only need an eighth of a cup for a full load of clothes — she hopes to do it every couple of months with each of her science classes. A tub of the soap is then stored in the laundry room at school, available for teens to use on site or to take home with them from class.

Morsching said staff made students and families aware of the new resource at the beginning of the year, and continues to let new students know about the washer and dryer during the intake process.

“Everybody has it available to them,” she explained. “Even if they don’t qualify as in transition.”

In terms of other support for students in transition, Morsching noted that the school takes most things on a case-by-case basis, although Kiefer added that the school will be accepting winter clothing from area organizations ahead of the colder months.

“We receive quite a few donations from community organizations such as hats, gloves, boots, socks, winter coats. We’re very grateful for all of those things,” he said. “People can contact us at the ALC if they’d like to help in any capacity.”

Kiefer added that one of the main ways residents can help is by providing opportunities for students to take on a leadership role in the community.

“My students are amazing kids. We go out into the community and provide a lot of service. If people know of any way we can provide service, we love getting our students into positive leadership positions,” he explained.

Morsching echoed Kiefer, saying that students at the ALC are always quick to help others in need. “They help where they can help, and they sometimes need help themselves.”

Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget.

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