Dress for Success

  • This fall, school districts all over the U.S. are introducing uniforms or tightening dress codes so as to rule out all manner of garb deemed provocative--tank tops, oversize pants, clunky shoes, body piercings, ghoulish makeup and, of course, trench coats. Since the Columbine High School tragedy, "school leaders have been grasping at any policy that could contribute to a more civil, safe and tolerant school environment," observes Jay Goldman, editor of the monthly magazine School Administrator. And clothing is the most tangible of targets.

    So enthusiastic are American families about uniforms that this year they will spend $1.5 billion on them--triple what they spent just two years ago. By themselves, says Goldman, "school uniforms are not the answer to higher achievement or to closing the gap between minority and majority students." But a change in dress, particularly to a uniform, can have numerous positive effects. Students may become more self-confident and self-disciplined, less judgmental of other students, better able to resist peer pressure and concentrate on schoolwork. Jean Hartman of Long Beach, Calif., was once an opponent of uniforms. But after they were made mandatory in her children's school district--where 66,000 students in 56 elementary schools, 14 middle schools and one high school now wear them--there were "fewer disruptions, fewer suspensions, better attendance," according to Dick Van Der Laan, the system's spokesman. Criminal incidents at the district's schools have decreased 86% since uniforms were mandated in 1994. "A uniform," Hartman now says, "breaks down any kind of social and economic barrier kids may put into place at that age, so everyone is on an even playing field." Marylouise Ortega-Lau, principal of the Wilson Classical High School in that district, notes that "there is a more businesslike attitude as a result of wearing the uniform--and you need to show students how to deal in the world of work and business, where there are limits on dress."

    If your child's school is considering adopting a dress code or requiring uniforms, here's some advice from those with experience:

    When parents inquire about the possibility of a change in dress code, the school board typically sends a survey to its families. If two-thirds of the parents surveyed respond positively, administrators, teachers, parents and students work together to come up with a code or uniform, along with incentives, compliance measures and means for providing free uniforms to needy families. A dress policy, says Van Der Laan, must be "parent driven." Only then is a new policy likely to succeed.

    Students should be part of the decision-making process. "You need student representation in any decision about clothing," insists Goldman. "If you are trying to build buy-in, you can't expect students that are not represented to feel that they have any connection."

    School administrators, including Renee Shackelford, principal of Flat Shoals Elementary, a year-round school in Georgia, have learned that if you are planning to introduce uniforms into the schools, it is easier to start with younger students. That's because, she explains, their "parents are still making a lot of the decisions."

    Choose a variety of garments, including jumpers, overalls, shorts and skorts, as well as skirts and pants, in classic, comfortable styles. Jayne White, an education professor at Missouri's Drury College, believes that young people cannot appear to be "walking robots--they need to keep some identity of their own." The clothes should be made by various companies and be available in many local stores in a wide price range. With the help of community groups and fund raisers, your school should be able to provide uniforms to families who cannot afford them and to keep some on hand at school for days when students turn up out of uniform.

    There are guidelines that a school should follow to protect itself legally. Find out what your state's laws are with regard to codes and uniforms. Make sure the policy is reasonably clear to all those involved, lest a federal court rule it "void for vagueness." Says Perry Zirkel, Iacocca Professor of Education at Lehigh University: "[If your policy is clear], and you have reasonable justification [such as gang violence] for the limitation, the court will be on your side." Make sure that the policy does not attack anyone's point of view and does provide ways for students to express differences, particularly religious ones. Zirkel advises that a school "avoid confrontation, keep the lines of communication open and not overreact to noncompliance."

    Imposition of a dress code or uniform should be one of several changes designed to improve standards in your school, along with those that promote more parental involvement and higher academic standards. Goldman believes that to introduce a new clothing policy "as part of a wider array of policies and practices is probably a very good thing." But he warns that "if done as a supposed quick fix, it is a terrible idea. Nothing is a quick fix in education."