- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2003

Iris Toyer was wary of schools that require students to wear uniforms. After all, the Anacostia mother of four had successfully guided three of her children through the local school system and let them dress however they pleased.
But today, with her 10-year-old son studying at Stanton Elementary School in Southeast, which requires school uniforms, her heart has changed along with the times.
"Kids are different now," Ms. Toyer says. A uniform "evens the playing field. Children aren't so focused on what each other has on."
Others feel the same way. School uniforms are growing in popularity and in numbers.
Proponents claim school uniforms cut down on sartorial disagreements, help students concentrate on their assignments and engender a sense of esprit de corps. Critics decry uniforms as robbing children of their self-expression, and they say no real improvement in grades or behavior has been documented.
The debate rages on, but school uniform proponents appear to have momentum on their side.
NDP Group Inc., a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., reports that school uniform sales jumped 22 percent in 2000, to $1.1 billion. And numerous experts say more parents and educators are gathering information on the pros and cons of school uniforms. .
Children may prefer to pick out their own clothes, but Ms. Toyer, a former school board member, says her son quickly adapted to the school uniform policy.
Uniforms also make weekday mornings a bit easier.
"Getting his clothes ready for school is a snap," Ms. Toyer says.
Her fellow parents seem to agree. "We all buy the uniforms at the end of summer and that's it," she says. "There's no conversation about it."
Francis Nicol, principal of R.H. Terrell Junior High School in Northwest, says he discussed school uniforms at length with parents before his school embraced them last fall.
"It took quite awhile to get a consensus," Mr. Nicol says. "[Parents] don't want their children to look like everyone else."
But, finally, he says, parents realized "the benefits from it could be much greater than the one or two concerns."
So far, uniforms have had a positive impact, the principal reports, particularly in forging school pride.
"When they go out, they know they're together. It makes them feel more of a belonging," he says. "School spirit is building."
School unity can be a big factor in schools with international students, such as Cameron Elementary School in Alexandria. Its switch to school uniforms in the mid-1990s has helped unify a population made up of students from more than 40 countries.
Other changes at R.H. Terrell have been even more impressive, Mr. Nicol says.
Last school year, 15 students were caught entering school with objects that could be considered weapons. Often, students' baggy clothes helped them hide those instruments.
This year, no students have been found smuggling weapons.
The current school year also has featured less fighting than in previous years.
In the past, school officials could count on two or three fights in a single week, Mr. Nicol says. Those incidents are down over the past few months, he says, citing two straight weeks without a serious dust-up.
"Something is working," he says, though he adds that he cannot prove a definitive cause and effect due to the uniforms.
One reason the switch to uniforms didn't cause many wrinkles is that the school involved the children in the process. Students decided on the style and color of the uniforms: boys wear white oxford or polo shirts with khaki pants, while girls don pleated khaki skirts and white blouses.
Mr. Nicol says initial results in his school support the proposition that if students spend less time squabbling over fashion faux pas, they would have more time for their school work.
School officials recently administered mock SAT-9 tests, exams aimed at students in grades 9 through 11 to test their abilities in a variety of subjects, and found test scores generally higher than in recent years, he says.
The only complaint registered has been that some parents can't afford the uniforms. Mr. Nicol says community members are stepping up to help those families buy the clothing. So far, eight families have directly benefited from that generosity.
Douglas Gohr, president of Omega Uniforms Inc. in College Park, says uniform sales nationwide have gone up in recent years, slowing last year along with the lethargic economy.
Locally, Mr. Gohr says sales jumped about 20 percent over the last several years, ending in 2002.
He says most uniforms feature navy blue and khaki combinations, with private schools favoring plaid ensembles,
Mr. Gohr, who supplies school uniforms chiefly to Prince George's County students, says a full uniform set featuring two separate ensembles averages about $150. Some parents buy five sets at a time, but given the way young boys "tear them up before they outgrow them," as Mr. Gohr says, that may not be a wise choice.
Girls' jumpers last longer, he says, typically about two years.
Not all local school districts are turning to school uniforms as their de facto dress code.
Arlington Public Schools' Carlin Springs Elementary School, for example, stands as the county's sole public school with uniforms, and wearing them is optional.
That distinction should be the norm in uniform schools nationwide, says Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Virginia branch.
Mr. Willis says interest in school uniforms grew in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, in which 15 died, including the two young gunmen.
That doesn't make unforms the solution to perennial school woes like violence in the classroom, Mr. Willis says.
Mandatory uniforms "at the very least violate the spirit of the First Amendment," he says.
Students should not have to wear a uniform, he says, in the same way they should not have to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
The ACLU's arguments haven't dissuaded parents and educators from considering them as a way to improve the education system.
June Million, a spokeswoman for the Alexandria-based National Association of Elementary School Principals, says the school uniform pages in her group's Web site (www.naesp.org) receive more hits than almost every other section.
Today, major retail chains such as Sears and Wal-Mart regularly stock school uniforms, she says, and her group's annual conventions feature more uniform vendors each year.
Her group says one-fourth of school principals in urban areas either used school uniforms or were considering the prospect. Inner city schools, more than suburban schools, deal with issues such as clothing with gang colors that could be divisive.
While NAESP doesn't have an official position on school uniforms, she says her group recommends that schools keep in mind religious sensitivities when choosing school uniforms and assist poorer families who can't afford them.
Still, educational experts can't say exactly how helpful uniforms may be, beyond anecdotal evidence.
"Nothing that I've seen says that children learn more or are academically advanced because they have uniforms on," she says. "That hasn't been proven."
Lucretia Jackson, principal of Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy in Alexandria, incorporated school uniforms into the school three years ago. She says the uniforms changed how children interact.
"There seems to be less differentiation amongst cliques," Ms. Jackson says. "The children see everyone as equal."
Others in the neighborhood have taken notice of the change.
"When they go on field trips, [strangers] compliment the children on their appearance and behavior. That leads to an increased self-esteem," she says.
Ms. Jackson says some parents have been donating uniforms outgrown by their children to help those who may have a hard time paying for new ones.
Children still may jump into their "civies" when the bus drops them back home at the end of the day, but Ms. Jackson says many children have taken to the navy blue and white ensembles.
"The kids use the word 'tight.' Tight means it's cool," she says.

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