Thursday, August 13, 2009

Sue Scheff: Back to School - School Uniforms

What a great subject for this time of the year! Personally, as a parent, when my kids were in school, I applauded uniforms. The kids don't always agree with this.

“Uniforms — they’re just so plain … and eeewww ... I don’t like them,”

– Chelsea, 12

Every year, as tens of millions of students head back to school, there is a question that routinely gets asked this time of year: should public schools require uniforms? The research shows what a child wears can have an impact on learning and behavior.

“This is the plaid skirt. It’s really cute,” says 10-year-old Paige, as she displays her new school uniforms.

Paige is trying to stay positive, but the truth is she and her older sister Chelsea don’t like the thought of having to wear uniforms.

“I think it’s kind of a bad idea because you want to be your own self,” says Paige.

According to Chelsea, 12, “It doesn’t give you your chance to shine as a person. And uniforms — they’re just so plain … and eeewww ... I don’t like them,” she exclaims.

This year, the girls are switching to a new school that requires uniforms — much to their parent’s delight.

“I think that uniforms remove a great, great barrier from one child to the next,” says Charles Addison, Paige and Chelsea’s father. “They just have to deal with their schoolwork and concentrate on math, science, history and not those other distractions.”

Researchers at Youngstown University found that wearing uniforms can lead to better attendance and graduation rates as well as lower suspension rates.

“It reduces conflict and branding among student groups — cliquishness. [Uniforms also reduce the] potential for bullying for not wearing the right clothes,” explains psychologist Dr. Jennifer Thorpe. “Uniforms keep kids on task, doing their work, engaged in the curriculum.”

But this research isn’t conclusive. Previous studies have shown that uniforms don’t improve student performance or behavior. And critics argue uniforms suppress a student’s individuality.

“As kids move into middle school and high school, they begin to use clothes to define themselves as a form of self-expression that can carry a lot of weight in terms of how they are perceived by their peers,” Dr. Thorpe explains.

She says if your children are required to wear uniforms, you can do what Chelsea and Paige’s parents do: remind them there are lots of other ways to express yourself.

“Do it with your mind, your mouth, your smile. Be happy,” says Clarence Addison. “You can show all of the things that you wanted to show through clothes, just show it through your personality.”

Tips for Parents

In September 1987, the students of Cherry Hill Elementary School, an inner-city public school in Baltimore, Md., began voluntarily wearing uniforms to school. Cherry Hill is attributed as the first public school to adopt a uniform policy. Donning the uniforms was part of a community, grass roots effort to curb clothing costs and social pressures. After a decade had passed, principal Geraldine Smallwood believed students were doing better in the classroom because by dressing in the uniforms, “they know that they are coming to work.”

A study by the National Association of Elementary School Principals found that principals reported dress codes as having positive effects on:

■The school’s image within the community.
■Classroom discipline.
■Peer pressure.
■School spirit.
■Concentration on schoolwork.
■Student safety.
Further findings from the U.S. Department of Education show uniforms:

■Decrease violence and theft among students over designer clothing and expensive sneakers.
■Prevent gang members from wearing gang colors and insignias to school.
■Instill students with discipline.
■Help parents and students resist peer pressure.
■Help school officials recognize intruders on the campus.
Unless there are clear disciplinary or safety problems in the schools (which may or may not be the situation in your district), the federal government advises that uniform-style dress codes be optional or include an opt-out clause. In some districts, students whose parents "opt out" attend another school that does not have a uniform policy. If your district has only one middle and one high school, these students would have to attend other schools at district expense, or be given homebound instruction. Furthermore, districts must make uniforms available to low-income families at reasonable – or no cost. Given these guidelines, there are certain elements parents should expect if their child’s school is implementing a uniform policy.

The U.S. Department of Education gives these guidelines to adopt a school uniform policy:

■Involve parents from the beginning.
■Protect students’ religious expression, e.g. allow heads, arms and legs to be covered.
■Protect students’ other rights of expression, e.g. political viewpoints displayed on items meeting uniform criteria.
■Determine whether the policy is mandatory or voluntary. Mandatory policies without an opt-out provision are vulnerable to legal challenge.
■Do not require students to wear a message on the uniform.
■Assist families that need financial help.
■Treat uniforms as part of an overall safety program.
■National Association of Elementary School Principals
■Pauline Harding's School Uniforms and Dress Codes Page
■U.S. Department of Education