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Policy on Uniforms Gives Rise to Job Program

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The growing popularity of student uniforms in Baltimore public schools has boosted a community project aimed at training out-of-work local residents to make the garments.

Aided by a recent grant of nearly $200,000 from a local foundation, organizers of The Public School Uniform Project Inc. say they hope to train and place the unemployed workers in manufacturing jobs in local uniform factories.

The grant will also finance the establishment of a uniform-distribution center to handle alterations and manufacture about 20 percent of the uniforms needed by Baltimore pupils.

"This project is empowering people in the community to take a unified direction in addressing training and education,'' said Ray Bennett, the project's president.

The nonprofit group initiated the idea of using uniform manufacturing as a job-training project. Its members conducted a lobbying effort to persuade city schools to offer their pupils the option of wearing standardized outfits.

Now in 4 Schools

Mr. Bennett said organizers hope to expand the project to Boston. Leaders of the effort discussed the idea with school officials from that city this month, he said. A preliminary plan calls for the Baltimore project to initially oversee production of uniforms for Boston pupils. Under the plan, Mr. Bennett said, Boston would eventually develop a counterpart to the Baltimore group.

Last September, three of Baltimore's elementary schools adopted optional uniforms. A fourth school did so this spring. School officials estimate that more than 90 percent of the nearly 2,300 pupils in the four schools wear uniforms.

Some 2,600 pupils in six other elementary schools in the city will begin wearing uniforms next fall.

And parents and officials in a dozen additional schools--including one middle school--are currently weighing similar proposals, according to a spokesman for the school district. If all these schools adopt the plan, an additional 6,000 district pupils could be sporting the new look during the next school year.
Oponents of the uniforms argue that they help improve school discipline, increase pupils' self-esteem, and eliminate the high cost and peer pressure associated with fashion fads. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1987.)

Individual schools have chosen their own designs, with a typical outfit costing $30.

"Last year at this time, we had not sold a single uniform,'' Mr. Bennett noted.

Now, he added, the project does not have to solicit parents and educators to adopt the look. "They come to us to get involved,'' he said.

Economic-Development Effort

The inspiration for adopting uniforms in Baltimore schools came from Roland Jackson, a retired local business leader who is currently vice president of the nonprofit group. Mr. Jackson hoped that demand for the garments would spur development of a cottage industry in an economically depressed section of the city.

Initially, a local seamstress and clothing designer produced the uniforms in her home, with the help of a handful of additional workers. The project provided her with the materials for the uniforms.

But when the first three schools that offered the uniform option placed simultaneous orders last fall, production rates could not meet the demand.

Since then, the outfits have been made by prisoners in the Maryland penal system and by Blind Industries, a group that employs the visually impaired.

Starting next fall, however, G. and G. Uniforms, a local manufacturing firm, will make most of the uniforms, according to Mr. Bennett.

As part of the employment project, the company has agreed to hire at least 10 unemployed parents to perform sewing and other manufacturing functions.

Mr. Bennett said the principals of the four schools whose students currently wear uniforms will recommend parents for the jobs, giving preference to single mothers receiving government benefits.

After a three-month trial period, he said, the company will give "real jobs'' to the parents. They will become regular union employees and make at least $7 an hour.

"They will be able to say, 'At least there's something I can do for my family and for myself,''' he said.

Project leaders are now holding discussions with another local manufacturer, he said, adding that the second firm would also be expected to agree to hire unemployed parents if it decided to make uniforms.

Distribution Center

In addition, Mr. Bennett said, the $197,000 grant from the A.S. Abell Foundation--whose chairman is a former president of the city's board of education--will enable the program's new distribution center to hire five administrators and clerks.

The center will also train an unspecified number of workers for tailoring positions, he said. Mr. Bennett said the goal of the training is to have the new workers gain employment with G. and G. or another local company.

The Baltimore-based clothing manufacturer London Fog has donated sewing machines to the center.

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