Is uniform policy making grade?
Educators, officials say it's working; some parents, students still object to it
Published: Monday, January 3, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2011 at 6:31 a.m.
More than six months after the Alachua County School Board enacted a uniform dress code policy, administrators say it is working — shown in the hallways and in the classrooms.
Some parents and students are skeptical, citing unruly but well-dressed students and constant flouting of the stricter rules.
The School Board in June 2010 passed the dress code policy in a 3-2 vote. Current board chair Barbara Sharpe voted in favor of the code, while board member Eileen Roy, who voted against the code, counts it as a misguided effort to rein in student behavior.
"There's learning instead of peer-driven fashion shows," Sharpe said in a November interview.
Students and some parents protested the decision, calling it a suppression of individuality and a burden on already light pocketbooks.
More than 660 uniform dress code referrals have been issued since the start of the school year. The number of referrals spiked in November, with more than 198 students referred for breaking the uniform dress code.
Gainesville High School had the most uniform dress code referrals at 263. Eastside High had 163 referrals, according to school district data.
With more than 2,000 students, that number represents a small fraction, Gainesville High Principal Wiley Dixon said.
"It doesn't matter what the dress code is and how easily interpreted it is, they are going to push the limits of it," he said.
Dixon said the new policy leaves questions out of the equation.
"The big difference is this uniform policy is more concrete than the other one was," he said. "Before, so many things were judgment calls, and I think there was too much wiggle room."
The previous policy mandated common decency, including skirts and shorts that reached mid-thigh, pants that did not sag and clothing free of profanity and sexual images. The current policy mandates solid-colored polos with collars or school-sponsored T-shirts with solid-colored and unadorned pants, skirts or shorts.
School Board member Carol Oyenarte said an "expanded dress code" is the great equalizer in the classroom.
"Some kids come in with unlimited funds to buy their clothes," she said. Now, "everyone is not checking out who's wearing what brand."
Polo shirts from Wal-Mart are similar but distinguishable from polos from stores such as Express, which cost $40 and bear a small lion, or Abercrombie and Fitch, which can cost as much as $60.
"Unless you're studying a small thing on their chest, across the boards, when you walk in the schools, everyone is much more professional looking," Oyenarte said.
That's the problem, Fort Clarke Middle School student Alex Sellers said. "It doesn't change their test scores or their personalities," he said. "It just changes how they look."
His mother, De Sellers, began giving away black "no uniforms" rubber wristbands akin to the yellow Livestrong bracelets. It started with a select group at Gainesville High, where Sellers' older daughter attends school, but Sellers said the bands have been distributed to students in five different schools now.
"Pants are still hanging off their rear ends," she said. "There doesn't seem to be any justification for parents having to spend more money."
Sellers said she tried to reach out to School Board members but was met with few responses.
"Barbara Sharpe even suggested that we were threatening her," Sellers said. "We will — with our votes."
Sellers has started a parents group dubbed PCARE — Parents Concerned About Responsible Education — to let the district know the teachers union isn't the only stakeholder it has to contend with, she said.
Cherie Schneider, a private school teacher and mother of four children — three of whom attend public schools, said the new dress code works for her family. "We find it much easier to dress in the morning," she wrote on GainesvilleMoms.com. "The clothes are not an issue to find, and it is much easier on me as a teacher."
Not only has their appearance changed, Schneider said in a later telephone interview, so have their attitudes.
"You can tell — especially in some of the kids I knew last year — their behavior has changed," she said. "They've got more pride in themselves."
Roy said in a November 2010 interview that she hoped the new policy would be beneficial but that she had her doubts.
"I felt that the policy we had — if it was enforced — it was just as good as the new policy," she said.
Alex Sellers said teachers at his school have resorted to "collar checks" during the cold weather snap. Students have been wearing contraband clothing under their coats, he said.
Other school districts are considering moving to uniform policies, including Pinellas County, one of the largest districts in Florida.
Pinellas School Board officials asked their superintendent in October to focus on tightening the current dress code.
Superintendent Julie Janssen initially proposed uniforms for elementary and middle school students, before the School Board directed her to make a more flexible policy, according to the St. Petersburg Times.
Alachua County's uniform dress code is mild compared with Osceola County, which restricts colors to khaki, white and navy blue and mandates that belts be worn with pants with belt loops. Polk County has had a similar policy since 1999, which led to a lawsuit. Alachua County students may wear colors and jackets of their choosing.
Bradford, Clay, Columbia, Levy and Marion counties do not have uniform dress codes.
De Sellers said she hopes the new School Board will be more receptive to reversing the current policy, but most members — with the exception of Roy — have voiced support for the uniform policy.
Oyenarte said detractors will have to adjust.
"It's here," she said. "Accept it."
Contact Jackie Alexander at email@example.com or 338-3166.
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