Uniform Wars

The case for looking alike at school

by Deirdre Reilly | 02 Oct 2015 at 5:17 AM

How can students truly express their creativity in school?

One Washington, D.C., elementary school says it is through clothing.

Leckie Elementary School is abolishing its school-uniform policy, which have been a growing trend in urban schools for years. The move allows students to express themselves creatively through their apparel.

And that’s just fine with Atasha James, the principal.

“Some girls wear ball gowns to school. I say 'If you like it, fine,'” James told the Washington Post.

Shouldn’t creativity flourish within the curriculum — in art, chorus, school theater, essay-writing, speech and debate — instead of through dress?

“To see them in their own clothing, I can see their own personalities more, and I love it.”

One might wonder if a ball gown gets in the way during recess -- but there are other, more serious issues at hand.

Other schools in the District of Columbia seem to recognize this. Three-quarters of traditional public schools, and many public charter schools, require students to wear uniforms.

Many educators around the country do not share James’ zest for self-expression on school grounds.

Take, for example, Karen Cahill, who has 25 years of experience teaching underprivileged students in Boston.

“Without uniforms, kids know how many pairs of Nikes you have," Cahill told LifeZette. "I can’t tell you how disruptive that can be, and how embarrassing for the child who doesn’t own three pairs of Nikes. With a uniform-dress code, nobody knows this. Your uniform can be washed out nightly. No child is looked down on, and their dignity can remain intact during school hours."

A college sociologist disagreed.

“To me, it’s a children’s rights issue,” David Brunsma, a professor of sociology at Virginia Tech University, told the Washington Post. “Some are more likely in this society to be supported by their schools to express themselves.”

"Uniforms level the playing field for every student. It is a reflection that we are intent on learning."

Many parents disagree with ditching the uniforms.

“Do parents really believe that the way a child dresses himself in elementary school is a way to express creativity?” one Washington, D.C., media professional and mom told LifeZette.

“Furthermore, do they want clothes to be that medium? I can think of so many better outlets of creative expression — art, dance, theater, writing, computer programming. Uniforms help take the emphasis off of material possessions.”

Others say that uniforms are a practical choice.

“Any parent who doesn't support school uniforms must have a ton of time and extra money on their hands!” a Washington-area mom told LifeZette. “Uniforms make the morning rush much less stressful when your kid only has one basic choice for clothing. It makes clothes a nonissue."

School uniforms are definitely on the rise. In the 2011-2012 school year, about 20 percent of U.S. schools required uniforms, up 13 percent from eight years earlier, according to the Post. Nearly half the public schools that teach high-poverty student populations require uniforms, too, compared to 6 percent of low-poverty schools.

“Uniforms give students pride. It is a way to say, “I am a proud member of my school community,’” Cahill told LifeZette.

And what about the intangible benefits a uniform offers kids?

“Uniforms may literally be, in some sad cases, the only thing a child experiences on a consistent basis that points to a hopeful future," said one Boston mom. "What makes you feel better about yourself – khakis and a tie, or a Metallica T-shirt and baggy jeans? Forget about creativity. For some it’s about having any future at all.”

Uniforms may literally be, in some sad cases, the only thing a child experiences on a consistent basis that points to a hopeful future.

Once for elite prep or private school kids, uniforms were adopted by urban school districts as a way to reduce crime and gang activity. Teachers loved them, and even President Bill Clinton gave them his seal of approval, stating in his 1996 State of the Union address, “If it means that teenagers will stop killing each other over designer jackets, then our public schools should be able to require their students to wear school uniforms.

“Uniforms in schools are so important,” Cahill told LifeZette. “It levels the playing field for every student. It is a reflection that we are intent on learning."

Shouldn’t creativity flourish within the curriculum — in art, chorus, school theater, essay-writing, speech and debate — instead of through dress?

“Our focus is knowledge,” Cahill said of her students and teachers.

“But are we creative?” she asks with a laugh. “You bet. We are having a contest now to decide whose logo design we will use.”

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