A modest, sparsely decorated office space partially filled with clothes, shoes, and other items is making a tremendous impact on students at Elizabeth Andrews High School.
The office is home to the school’s clothes closet, a location students seek when they need help obtaining essential, everyday items like school-appropriate shirts, pants, and shoes that otherwise could present a barrier to getting their education. Led by the student support trio of Cynthia Gipson, school social worker; Rose Porter, guidance counselor; and Melody Moton, Title-I parent liaison, the closet is often a last resort for young men and women in danger of missing vital classroom time.
“Attendance matters. What we try to provide is something that saves a day so they won’t lose it,” Moton said, noting that the school dress code often calls for clothing students may not own. “Most of these students ride MARTA. If they are out of compliance, they may have to go home to change. When that happens, they may not make it back (that day).”
The clothes closet, as it’s informally known, is an attempt to meet the needs of the non-traditional environment at Elizabeth Andrews. Students at the school range from high school sophomores to learners age 30 or older. According to Porter, many of the young people are attempting to graduate after making poor choices in school or enduring difficult experiences at home.
Elizabeth Andrews fosters an environment that helps students get back on track to graduation. However, the school has high standards for students, including a semester schedule that allows for no more than five missed classes as well as a strictly-monitored dress code. Before the clothes closet was founded, students out of compliance with the clothing requirements faced a harrowing decision, said Moton.
“Students would make a decision to go home or sit in study hall. But if they chose study hall, they get credit for the full day and are able to get their class assignments,” Moton said. “If they went home, not as many would return because they live so far away that it’s hard to make it back to school.”
The clothes closet is not large, yet it provides a wide array of items of appropriate clothes. Two staggered racks of collared and non-collared t-shirts, in a variety of colors and styles, first catch the eyes of visitors. Adjacent is a wooden cabinet stocked with dark-colored jeans, many with the retail tags still in place, folded over hangers. In a corner is a bookcase-like stack of shelves with hats, sweaters and other items. A box of shoes rests on the floor across the room. A 4-drawer file cabinet of school supplies, book bags, hygiene kits, socks and underclothing.
The items are donated from groups and organizations both near and far. The Assistance League of Atlanta has been generous in supporting the closet, as have members of the DeKalb County School District Human Capital Management Department. Those larger donors have been supplemented by individuals, including teachers who often step forward to meet the needs of students. Anywhere from 10 to 20 students visit the closet daily, Gipson said. Most leave with clothes they need not just to complete the school day, but with apparel they can be proud to wear. In many cases, the trio said students are not intentionally violating the dress code, but they come to school wearing the only items they have available.
“I remember a student who said he never had a pair of slacks, never had a belt. Another said he never had a collared shirt before,” Gipson said, also recalling a situation where a student needed to complete finals and could not afford to miss a day. “I had a student in tears and she just needed to make it through the day.”
Speaking of a similar situation where a young woman was provided a new pair of jeans to replace the leggings she wore to school, Moton said, “It just did something for her that the jeans still had the tag on them. Many times they are not disrespecting the dress code. It may have been all she had.”
Opening up to others about struggles is not easy, Porter said, noting that pride often ends up losing out to meeting the requirements of the school. “Students are very reluctant, especially about their personal stories. They’re told at home, ‘don’t go telling our business.’ Sometimes they have to tell you about their personal situation,” she said. “Sometimes you have to dig deeper to find out what’s going on at the home. They get upset but they love that someone cares about them. After they graduate they come back, give you a big hug, and thank you for not giving up on them.”
The clothes closet continues to evolve to meet the needs of Elizabeth Andrews students. The trio of social workers works to provide reduced-price MARTA cards, food, and hygiene items as well as access to job fairs and college fairs. “We make this a one-stop shop,” Gipson said. “Having it here gives me a chance to talk to the students. This is one of the schools where students will seek out the social worker. We let them know ‘I don’t want you to stay home. I want you to graduate.”
To donate new or gently-used clothes, school supplies, hygiene products or other items to the Elizabeth Andrews High School, contact Cynthia Gipson, Rose Porter and, Melody Moton at (678) 676-2602.