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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

TPS dress code not a fit for everyone

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Students wearing school uniforms leave the Old West End Academy last week after the first half day of classes. This year, all TPS elementary schools will require uniforms. Students wearing school uniforms leave the Old West End Academy last week after the first half day of classes. This year, all TPS elementary schools will require uniforms.
HIRES / BLADE Enlarge

Kirby Jewell says if she's not going to Catholic school, she shouldn't have to dress like a student at one when classes resume Aug. 31 at Toledo Public Schools.

"They are ugly," Kirby, a sixth-grader at Arlington Elementary, said of her school uniform choices.

Her mother, however, has a different view.

"I know my kids are not too thrilled about it, especially my sixth-grader because she missed getting out of it by just one year," said Sue Jewell. "I have no problem with it. You're taking peer pressure away when everyone is dressed the same."

Toledo Public, which has the largest student population in northwest Ohio or the three southeastern Michigan counties along the border, has adopted a mandatory school uniform policy for elementary schools as part of its strategy to increase test scores and encourage better behavior. The district is planning to phase the uniforms in districtwide over three years, beginning with elementary schools this year, middle schools next year, and high schools in 2006-2007.

The school district had planned to enact the policy last school year, but it was delayed because Ohio law requires that public school districts give parents at least six months notice before mandating students wear uniforms. Superintendant Eugene Sanders said the district

has spent months educating parents about the policy.

"We hope to see some improvement in academics and attendance," Mr. Sanders said. "Obviously, I think we will see some improvement in behavior."

Sheila Austin, the district's chief of staff, said there are many benefits of a uniform policy. It removes the stigma of not wearing name-brand clothes, and will even save parents money.

"Parents are excited about not having to battle with their children with what they are going to wear," Ms. Austin said. "Even as adults, we behave differently when we are in dress-up clothes, and the students [will be] dressed like they are ready for work."

While it has been praised by school administrators, teachers, and many parents, Kirby and some other students who will be clad in the khaki, blue, and white uniforms are doing a fair amount of grumbling in home and at clothing stores and other locations.

"They're stiff and it's hard to move around in them," Kirby said. "We have no individuality."

But Kirby, 11, said the biggest complaint will be about the footwear: the policy requires black or dark shoes with enclosed toes and heels. She said students would be much more comfortable in sneakers - especially on the playground.

The district has processed more than 3,000 applications for free uniforms, which are offered to families that need financial assistance. The program extends to families who have a household income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. A family of four falls below the poverty level if the annual household income is less than $18,850.

Families will qualify if they posses a current Medicaid card, WIC card, receive publicly funded child care from Lucas County, food stamps, or Ohio Works First benefits.

Officials said four sets of uniforms cost about $120 and be adequate for the entire school year.

Jeans and sweat suits are prohibited. Colors are limited to white, light blue, dark blue, and yellow for girls and dark blue, navy, khaki and tan for boys. Girls must wear a blouse or polo shirt with a collar, or a turtleneck and a skirt, jumper, slacks, knee length shorts, or skort. Boys are required to wear a dress shirt, polo or oxford button-down shirt with a collar or a turtleneck and pants or knee length shorts.

Annise Barner, who has three children in the district, said pupils will be more focused on learning.

"I think it's a great idea," he said. "Everybody is equal this way."

But Twila Page, a member of the African-American Parents Association, questioned the policy last week during a meeting of school district leaders. She said it is possible many parents are not aware of the uniform requirements and that it will be a disruption when a child comes to school in casual clothes.

Mr. Sanders said schools will have loaner uniforms for students to wear in that situation. The first time a student fails to comply with the policy, it would warrant a simple phone call home, he said.

If the problem persists, Mr. Sanders said the school would take progressive disciplinary action. Specific punitive measures, such as demerits or detention, have not yet been drafted, he said.

"Our focus is academic improvement," he said. "We are not about sending students home."

Other school districts in the nation have enacted student uniform polices and have seen the kind of results that Mr. Barner and TPS officials are predicting.

The Long Beach Unified School District in Long Beach, Calif., piloted a uniform policy at 10 schools in 1994. It was a parent-initiated program that is now mandatory for kindergarten through eighth grade and in some high schools, said Richard Van Der Laan, district spokesman.

"I'd say school uniforms are part of a bigger picture of higher standards," Mr. Van Der Laan said. "If you have higher standards and you help students attain them, you get better results."

Overall, the 97,000-student-district experienced an increase in academic scores and the first high school that required uniforms, had the lowest rate of student suspension and highest rate of student attendance in the district, Mr. Van Der Laan said.

Sue Stanley, an associate professor at California State University and co-author of a book, Individuality in Clothing Selection and Personal Appearance, surveyed the district during the policy's inaugural year. She found that adults, particularly school administrators, said uniforms had a positive influence on student behavior. There was an increase in student cooperation and fewer playground fights, adults who were surveyed said.

"There are a lot of researchers that can talk about uniforms fostering memberships, reinforcing roles, and reinforcing membership in a group," Ms. Stanley said.

But students saw things differently.

"The majority of middle-school students said it didn't reduce [the number of] fights and didn't help them fit in," she said. "For the elementary school, 77 percent said it did not reduce fights, but 61 percent said it made them feel part of the school."

Deborah Kirby, a fifth-grade teacher at Hale Elementary in West Toledo, said she hopes to see positive results with her students.

"I really don't know how it's going to work, but I hope it does," she said. "I'm in favor of anything that helps children learn; anything that [puts] them in the right frame of mind so they are ready to come to school, and are dressed the part of a student."

Sandra Wittenberg, principal of Raymer Elementary in East Toledo, said uniforms will help level the playing field for some students and eliminate inappropriate clothing she has seen from time to time.

"In the past, I've seen some bad choices, to a significant degree," Ms. Wittenberg said. "Many times with the older ones, it was stuff the kids had snuck past the parents."

Contact Ignazio Messina at:

imessina@theblade.com

or 419-724-6171.



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