School Uniforms: Not Just for Catholics Anymore

DIANE M. HANSON

In many public-school districts, uniform policies are coming to be seen as one small, but significant,"counter-strike against the powerful influence of an increasingly aggressive popular culture.

“I am dying to push for uniforms at my daughter's school because of what I see happening here,” she said. Mazaris teaches at Albert Einstein Elementary School in Oak Park, Mich. Its uniform policy was developed 10 years ago. Since that time, more and more individual schools and nearly entire districts—including Houston, St. Louis and Atlanta—have adopted uniform dress codes.

“School kids are preparing for the workplace and how to dress there,” said Vernon Polite, associate professor of education at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “A uniform sends the message that a school is a workplace.”

Polite initiated the uniform policy at Einstein Elementary when he served as principal there from 1987-90. “When kids come to school in baggy pants, sloppy clothes and strange haircuts, they are not saying, `I am coming to school with a good work ethic,”` he added.

Polite, who works with public middle schools across the country, wore uniforms himself growing up as a Detroit Catholic school student. He observed there is a difference between the standard uniforms he wore and what is generally used in the public schools now “Very often we are talking about a code of dress, certain types and colors of pants and shirts,” he said.

That's the case at Einstein, where the uniform consists of blue bottoms and white tops that can be purchased anywhere from Target to Hudson's.

“It makes it so easy because it is so basic,” said Mazaris. “And it is so much cheaper than buying `fashionable' clothes.”

The uniforms take the focus off fashion and put it on learning, according to current principal William Washington. “We find the children are more focused, there are fewer fights and the students have a sense of pride as they travel through the hallways,” he said.

Washington said more than 90% of his student population of 650 come to school dressed in their uniforms. Although a student cannot be sent home for not wearing a uniform, there is a lot of peer pressure when nearly everyone else is wearing a uniform. “If you are not in a uniform you stand out,” he said—and what kid wants that?

Sense of belonging

Last year Mazaris assigned her students an essay explaining why uniforms are important to the school. Among the most-frequently cited reasons: fostering a sense of belonging, keeping clothes from becoming a social issue and saving parents money and trouble.

One f6urth-grader wrote, “School uniforms are extremely important. They prevent fights. No one can make fun of what you are wearing because they are wearing the same thing too. They allow you to concentrate more because you do not pay attention to what the person next to you is wearing. They give you school spirit.”

In Houston, the use of uniforms has grown “exponentially” over the past four years, according to the school department's media coordinator, Lisa Bunse. She said the trend started in the elementary schools of the inner-city district. Of the 288 campuses and educational programs them, she added, about 80% have adopted uniform codes.

Bunse said uniform codes are implemented school-by-school as the department surveys parents and student representatives on the issue, and encourages them to form decision-making teams. With such prompting and support, noted Bunse, at least six of the 15 high schools in the district have adopted uniform codes.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the trend to suit up for school.

'First amendment rights'

“Most of our students are overwhelmingly against uniforms “said Gary Frye, assistant principal of Carrithers Middle School in Louisville, Ky., which instituted a uniform policy five years ago. “A lot of them feel like they're being forced to wear something they don't want to wear.

shared his students' anti-uniform sentiment. He has one daughter in a middle school requiring uniforms and one in a high school that has a strict dress code and is pushing for uniforms.

“I think this is against my First Amendment rights,” he said. I am an individual-freedoms person and I don't want a council of parents telling me what I have to buy for my kids.” -

Frye said that if he wanted to, send his children to a Catholic school, he would willingly comply with the uniform policy at the selected school. It's different with public schools, he added, because there's no choice as to which one kids may attend.

At one Louisville high school, Frye noted, a number of parents have opposed the policy and discussed bringing in the American Civil Liberties Union.

They'll have their work cut out for them. In many public-school districts, uniform policies are coming to be seen as one small, but significant, counter-strike against the powerful influence of an increasingly aggressive popular culture. Many parents, educators and students alike recognize the measure as a move to help order triumph over chaos.

So strong is the attraction that even some of the educators have gotten in on the act. “I wear the uniform myself,” said Principal Washington, “and so do most of the staff. [The uniform policy] has been a very positive thing for all of us here.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Diane M. Hanson. “School Uniforms: Not Just for Catholics Anymore.” National Catholic Register. (Sept. 26-Oct. 2, 1999).

Reprinted by permission of the National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

AUTHOR

Diane M. Hanson is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Copyright © 1999 National Catholic Register


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