School looks at uniforms

By Lynn R. Parks

On the heels of a survey in which 62 percent of responding parents said that West Seaford Elementary would benefit from a uniform policy, the school is considering asking pupils to eliminate T-shirts, sandals and blue jeans from their school wardrobes. If approved, the school would be the first in the district and one of only six public schools in the state to adopt a school uniform.
Principal Ed Taylor and parent Mary Ann Gaskin, PTA member and chairwoman of the committee formulating the proposal, presented a tentative plan to the Seaford District School Board Monday night. Current district policy requires only that students "dress and groom themselves in an appropriate manner." But it also allows individual schools to establish dress codes "which are intended to facilitate safe and healthy conditions."
Under the West Seaford plan, children would be asked to wear khaki or navy blue (not denim) pants, shorts, skirts or jumpers. Tops, which could be oxford or polo shirts, sweaters, turtlenecks or vests, would have to be navy blue, light blue, white or yellow. Shoes would have to tie.
Students would not be punished for dressing out of uniform, nor would they miss any class time or be sent to the office. Taylor would send letters home to parents of any children he sees dressed not according to the code, reminding them of school policy. In addition, parents could request that their children not be required to adhere to the policy; however, certain dress limitations would still apply.
Appropriate clothing could be purchased from any store. However, Karen Caldro, second-grade teacher and a member of the committee that is studying the proposal, has been in touch with the Dickie clothing company, whose catalog features just what the school is suggesting. Caldro said that the company has agreed to set up a computer in the school through which items of clothing could be ordered online from its catalog. Prices range from $12 to $17 for boy's pants, $14 to $20 for girl's pants and $7 to $10 for shirts. The school would also keep a selection of Dickie clothing in all styles and sizes for children to try on.
Teachers, whose contract forbids the district from telling them what to wear, would not be affected by the policy. However, Caldro said that she will dress according to the uniform standards. "I have no problem with it. I already wear a lot of khaki and blues," she said. "But some teachers say, 'I'm not dressing in uniform.' "
"I am not personally in favor of a dress code," said a teacher at West Seaford who did not want to be identified. "But I feel that if we require our students to dress that way, teachers should dress that way. If we have a uniform, I will dress that way. Otherwise, it's not fair [to the children]."

Promoting team spirit
Caldro said that clothing that children wear now "gets in the way of learning." She said that she has seen children in her classroom who, unable to afford name-brand clothing, are ridiculed by other children. "We should have a team spirit," she said. "The classroom should be a learning team. All children should feel like they belong and now, some feel like they don't belong. They are withdrawn and are less likely to speak up in class, even when they have good ideas to share."

Taylor said that school uniforms lead to improvements in student behavior and achievement. "We need to borrow some things from private schools that are successful, and one thing is school uniforms," he said.
But the teacher who did not want to be identified disagrees. "I have no problem with the way the children in my classroom dress," she said. "Our efforts would be better spent focusing on improving our curriculum and instructional delivery. We need to improve our students' motivation to learn, and that is not necessarily linked to dress."

Already in place
Fairview Elementary School, Dover, part of the Capital School District, instituted a uniform policy at the beginning of this school year. Students can wear navy blue or khaki shorts, pants, skirts and jumpers. With those they wear navy blue polo shirts, sweaters, vests and turtlenecks, light blue oxford shirts or white polo or oxford shirts, sweaters, turtlenecks and vests. No labels or logos (except the Fairview School logo) are permitted and belts must be worn with all pants that have belt loops. Dark leather shoes are recommended but sneakers are permitted.
Similar to West Seaford's proposal, Fairview's dress code contains no punishment for children who do not wear the uniform. However, those who arrive at school in blue jeans or other unacceptable clothing are made to change clothes. Principal David Vaughan also sends a letter home reminding the parents of the dress code. Compliance rate is about 98 percent, he said.
According to principal David Vaughan, referrals of students to the office for bad behavior has dropped nearly 50 percent, from 60 in September through March 27 last year to 36 for the same period of time this year. In addition, he said, "it is the perception of the staff and of parents that attitudes have changed. Kids are more professional and are doing better. They are trying harder and are more cooperative."
Vaughan said that once a month, the school had "dress down day," when the students can dress out of uniform.
"The teachers tell me that on those days, all hell breaks loose," he said.
But the unidentified West Seaford teacher argued that statements that changes in behavior and attitude come with uniforms are based on teachers' perceptions in the classroom.
"There is no way to quantify that," she said. "Perhaps the teachers' attitudes toward the children have changed, because of the way the children are dressed."
A recent survey measured Fairview teachers', parents' and students' feelings about the uniform.
When asked if they were satisfied with the dress code, 32 members of the staff said yes while 9 said they were somewhat satisfied. None answered that they were dissatisfied. But at the same time, only five out of the 41 teachers said that they feel that staff should adhere to the dress code.
Sixty-one of 72 first graders said that wearing a uniform makes them better students. But only 17 of 64 fourth graders answered yes to the same question.
Of nearly 200 parents who responded to the survey, 142 said that they would like to see the uniform code continue. And 117 said that buying school clothes is less expensive with a uniform system.

Survey planned
Over 50 people attended a public forum on school uniforms held March 17 at West Seaford. Of those, Taylor said, about eight spoke against the proposal. A recent request to the school's PTA members for people willing to serve on the committee studying the proposal resulted in 56 volunteers.
In November, parents were asked to complete a survey on uniforms. Of 330 who responded, 203 said that the school would benefit from a uniform policy and 141 said that students would be happy wearing uniforms. A second survey of parents of current second-graders, first-graders and kindergartners will be taken in mid-April. Taylor said that a decision regarding the proposal will be made before the end of this school year.
"School is a community effort," Caldro said. "We want all our children to work together as a team. Many have the opportunity to be in Scouts or sports, to feel like part of a special team. But there are some children we have who have never been part of a team. We want them to feel that they are part of something special."
"As a public school we should recognize diversity within our students," said the unidentified West Seaford teacher. "We should promote diversity, not attempt to restrict it."