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Public Schools' Students Sporting a Uniform Look This Fall

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Four public elementary schools in Washington and Baltimore opened this fall with a new look that, by all indications, may spread to schools in several other urban systems.

Their students wear uniforms.

Though the standardized clothing is optional, officials at the schools report that use of the uniform has had strong backing from parents, who see it not only as a way to improve discipline and self-esteem, but to avoid the high cost and peer pressure associated with fashion fads.

"Kids are pressured and parents are pressured to buy designer clothes," said William Howard, principal of the Cherry Hill Elementary School in Baltimore, one of three city schools to adopt the policy. "Uniforms eliminate the competition for dress."

Noting that a pair of "acid-washed" denim jeans can cost as much as $75, Mr. Howard said that the two Cherry Hill uniforms--a two-piece, navy-blue jumper with light-blue blouse for girls; navy-blue trousers with light-blue shirt for boys--cost about $30 each.

Like his counterparts at other schools that have moved to standardize dress, the Cherry Hill principal said he had been inundated with telephone calls from across the country since news reports of the policy change this fall.

Though Baltimore officials plan to evaluate the performance of the three uniformed schools to see if the dress code has an impact on academic work and behavior, there is little research to support or disprove that contention.

Still, educators in a number of urban areas expressed in interviews last week a strong belief that by lessening students' excessive preoccupation with clothes, uniforms might improve learning.

Linda Cropp, a District of Columbia school-board member who has called for a study of instituting a districtwide dress code that could include uniforms, said that today's students "have dress on their minds more than education."

Thus far, one Washington elementary school has opted to initiate a voluntary uniform policy.

Four magnet programs in the surrounding suburbs require students to wear uniforms.

In addition, district officials in Milwaukee are considering whether to permit city schools to offer the uniform option. And in Pennsylvania, a state legislator has introduced a bill that would encourage the adoption of a voluntary uniform program in the Philadelphia school system.

Counters Trend

These developments fly in the face of a 20-year trend in the private sector toward loosening dress codes.

The Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa., for example, abandoned its uniform requirement for high-school students in the early 1970's.

According to Ann Kolakowski, a spokesman for the school, uniforms were dropped because officials realized that "one of the ways an adolescent can define himself or herself is through dress."

Proponents, however, say wearing a uniform creates a sense of unified purpose in a school and reduces behavior problems and socioeconomic distinctions.

Ruth Harper, the Pennsylvania Representative who has introduced the the uniform bill in the state's General Assembly, said she had been interested in the issue since 1979, when she visited several Philadelphia high schools and talked with students.

During one visit, Ms. Harper said, she noticed that a female student never took off her raincoat, even indoors.

When asked why, the student said "she was embarrassed because her dress was worn," according to the legislator.

Ms. Cropp, the D.C. board member, related similar stories of students embarrassed to go to school because their outfit "didn't have a name on it."

Uniforms, she contended, would act as an "equalizer" and bring more discipline to the schools.

"It's what's in your mind, not what's on your behind that counts," she said.

"That's what education should be about."

Walter Henry, principal of Washington's Burrville Elementary School, where uniforms have been standard fare since September, said that "if youngsters behave the way they look, yes, their achievement will improve."

"I tell my students, 'When you get up in the morning and you put on your uniform, you'll be dressed for your work,"' Mr. Henry said.

"If you put on a business suit, you go into work and you're ready for business," echoed Ms. Cropp. "When you put on playclothes, you're ready for play."

Strong Community Support

School officials stress the optional nature of uniforms in a public system. But in each community where the they have been introduced, the principal has sought, and received, the strong backing of teachers and parents.

Nearly 100 percent of the Cherry Hill School's parents, for example, voted in favor of the policy. And now, almost two months into the school year, every child is wearing a uniform, according to Mr. Howard.

Many parents see the uniforms as part of an overall school program to promote better values and greater self-esteem, Mr. Henry of Washington said.

"Many children are being raised with a false sense of values," he said. "Parents like this idea because we're trying to correct that."

Not 'A Panacea'

But schools should not view uniforms as a "quick fix" solution to deep-rooted academic problems, other educators warn.

Samuel Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said some principals may well have to ask themselves soon, "What do I do now that the newness has worn off?"

"The fact that children wear uniforms does not mean a school has a quality academic program," he said. Alma Crawford, a spokeswoman for the National Catholic Educational Association, agreed that uniforms alone cannot ensure educational quality.

"A uniform has to be part of an overall program," she said. "It can be a building block, but it certainly cannot be a panacea."

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