Schools weigh a more uniform student body
By Shirley Dang, Contra Costa Times, March 27, 2006
Raymar Valera, 10, roamed the asphalt playground in a white polo shirt and heavy blue corduroys.
Elizabeth Oregon, draped in blue Gap velour sweat pants, pondered the upside to the uniform she and her classmates don each day: navy skirt or pants, white top.
"I like them," said Elizabeth, a 10-year-old fifth-grader. "It allows us to stay more focused on our schoolwork and what we came here to do."
School uniforms, long a staple in Catholic schools and foreign classrooms, have emerged in the past decade as the most visible emblem of America's educational reform movement.
In 1996, only 3 percent of public schools required uniforms, said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Jim Bradshaw. Now, nearly a quarter of public schools in the nation have some type of uniform, according to sociologist David Brunsma, author of "The School Uniform Movement and What It Tells Us About American Education."
Followers of the fad include schools in Philadelphia, Miami and Charleston, S.C., and now several Bay Area districts, though California law allows parents to opt out.
Pittsburg and West Contra Costa school districts will require uniforms starting in the fall after several years of running voluntary programs. At least one school in Vallejo strictly enforces a khakis-and-collared-shirt rule. Several campuses in Oakland ask students to suit up.
Parents and principals credit the clothes for everything from thwarting violence to closing the divide between rich and poor. A recent study shows that uniforms bumped up graduation rates in Ohio by 11 percent.
Critics such as Brunsma counter that uniforms merely mask serious problems -- gangs, drug use, poor test scores -- that can't be whisked away with a collared shirt. Brunsma also argues that mandatory uniforms are unfairly required at schools with large numbers of poor and minority students.
"It's about much more than clothing kids," Brunsma said. "It's about the rights of children."
The trend of uniforms in public schools began in Baltimore in the late 1980s. In 1994, the urban Long Beach school district cemented uniforms as the cornerstone of the dress code for elementary and middle schools in what is now the state's third largest district.
What administrators in Long Beach saw the first year: a 75 percent decrease in sex offenses, 45 percent fewer assaults and batteries and record-high attendance rates districtwide.
In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton lauded the district, which had also enacted a number of other reforms. Soon, schools around the country joined the uniformed front.
Parkside Elementary School in Pittsburg began its voluntary uniform policy three years ago along with several other schools. Vice Principal Jeff Varner said it helped quell a budding gang problem spurred by red and blue attire.
"In the upper grades," Varner said, "we had kids claiming colors."
Oak Grove Middle School in Concord set its dress code last year. The Mt. Diablo school district campus requires black or navy pants, skirts or shorts, and gray or white tops.
With this uniform, students are literally dressed for success, said Principal Terry McCormick.
"I think it adds a seriousness," McCormick said. "Hopefully, the correlation is raised academics."
In her research, Virginia Draa, an assistant professor of human ecology at Youngstown University in Ohio, compared schools with and without uniforms.
She found that campuses where students dressed up showed gains on math tests. Suspensions plummeted as the graduation rate soared nearly 11 percent. At schools without uniforms, the graduation rate declined by 5 percent.
Draa's highly technical study controlled for other factors such as curriculum changes and safety policies. But she says common sense also points to the value of more appropriate attire.
"If you have kids who are dressed like students instead of like gangsters," Draa said, "doesn't it make sense that they will act more like students rather than gangsters?"
Parent Leticia Oregon, who wore uniforms as a young student in Mexico, said she approved of uniforms at Ford Elementary in Richmond for a very simple reason: No more fights over fashion at 7 a.m.
"It's very convenient," she said. "You don't have to think about what to wear."
Oregon also said uniforms minimized anxiety between the haves and have nots.
"It keeps the kids focused on their studies," Oregon said, "rather than thinking about who's wearing what brand."
Effects on Academic Performance
"The whole idea that you can make the issue of class go away ... I find it extremely ironic," said Brunsma, an associate professor in the black studies department at the University of Columbia, Missouri.
Polo shirts and khakis from Tommy Hilfiger and Gap compete in the uniform market alongside discount brands from Target and Wal-mart. Children will always know -- and notice -- the difference, Brunsma said.
As for achievement, Brunsma's research shows that uniforms are associated with a drop in reading achievement in elementary schools, and have minimal effect on achievement overall. One reason could be that districts employ uniforms as a reform at low-performing schools that teach mostly poor, minority children.
But clothes can't improve the quality of a teacher or eliminate the hardships facing African-American, Latino or immigrant children, Brunsma says.
"You can't erase a student's gender or race with the clothes they wear," Brunsma said.
As a mother and a volunteer at Patterson Elementary School in Vallejo, Ange Taylor agreed that khakis can't cover up behavioral problems.
"It's totally bogus to me," said Taylor, who refuses to send her second-grade son to school in the required khaki or navy pants and white shirt. "The same kids that were fighting last year are the same kids in the office this year."
She also opposes penalties doled out for violating the dress code. At Patterson, students without a parental waiver who do not wear the required garments may find themselves warming the bench in the office rather than in class.
"You are taking away instructional time. You're also singling out a kid: 'Ooh, he didn't wear the right thing.'"
Rather than take the focus off of clothes, uniforms magnify the problem and sap energy from education, Taylor said. "Don't worry about what they're wearing. Worry about what they're learning."
Shirley Dang covers education. Reach her at 510-262-2798 or email@example.com.
ARE UNIFORM RULES LEGAL?
According to courts, requiring khakis on campus is kosher.
Mandatory uniforms faced four major legal challenges in the late 1990s, said Todd DeMitchell, professor of education and justice studies at the University of New Hampshire.
Students and parents in Arizona, Louisiana and Texas claimed a breach of First Amendment rights. In Connecticut, a girl sued for the right to wear blue jeans.
In all four cases, districts won. State and federal courts decided that uniforms do not violate free speech or illegally restrict a person's liberties. Wearing clothing does not necessarily constitute a protected form of expression, and in these cases districts did not ban specific messages.
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