Some of our kids have grown up wishing they could wear a Hogwarts school uniform adorned with the prestigious Gryffindor crest. But would they have been as happy with khakis and a collared shirt? Others see their wardrobe choices as a mantle of creativity, a statement of individuality that longs to be proclaimed. So would they have been happy declaring, “My mom went to Old Navy, and all I got was this school uniform?”
School districts across the country are revisiting the idea of requiring students to wear uniforms (though sadly, those don’t include cloaks or wands).
Many educators, parents, and students think uniforms are worth a try.
“I personally loved having a uniform,” said Emily Faraone, a graduate of St. Gertrude High School in Richmond who now attends James Madison University. “I definitely think it helped bring our school together. I think a lot of us took pride when we happened to be in our uniforms outside of school and we would want to represent our school positively.”
Catholic schools like St. Gertrude and some other private schools have mandated uniforms for years. It’s part of their identity.
But in recent years, many public school districts have explored uniform policies as an equalizer. Many districts encourage them in certain schools, though no local district has implemented an across-the-board policy.
But if they did, many parents say they’d be happy.
“I believe our children go through enough stresses and insecurities without having to add the layer of who is wearing what to school each day,” said Sara Layne, whose son attends a Henrico County elementary school. “It takes away all socioeconomic stereotypes for these kids based on appearance and levels the playing field. It also keeps them from wearing inappropriate styles, lengths, and cuts.”
Nationally, about one in five public schools requires a uniform and more than half enforce a strict dress code, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Glen Sturtevant, who represents the first district on the Richmond Public School Board, said that RPS has considered uniforms for students as a means of addressing some of the issues the district grapples with.
“Admittedly, we have some challenges to overcome in our schools,” he said. “One of the issues raised in the last few months was if we want to adopt it [wearing uniforms] as a city-wide policy in our twelve failing schools.
“We don’t think this would solve all of the problems, but uniforms could be a piece in the puzzle of solving our socioeconomic differences and promoting discipline and focusing on academics.”
Sturtevant and the RPS board have looked at various studies. “What we’ve seen is that [the studies] present a mixed bag of results. It depends on the school and the student. You can’t necessarily say that if we adopt school uniforms in all our schools that it’s going to have the same effect. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We have a third of the state’s failing schools and we can’t afford to take any option off the table.”
One district frequently cited for implementing a successful mandatory uniform policy is Long Beach United School District in California. Since the policy was adopted in 1994, school crime decreased seventy-six percent and attendance spiked up.
In Norfolk, Ruffner Middle School was the city’s first to mandate uniforms in 1995. The following full year, discipline referrals dropped forty-two percent, much of which school administrators attributed to the policy And many studies show that children do learn better when they’re not worried about fitting in with peers who have more expensive or trendy outfits.
How much does a school uniform cost? Target offers most components (white blouse, jumper, plain trousers, or polo shirt) for under fifteen dollars apiece. Uniform manufacturer Legacy School Apparel offers girl’s flare-leg pants, a long-sleeve polo and a sweater online for around forty dollars.
Bernita Sykes’ children, Charlie and Shelby, attend Patrick Henry Charter School in Richmond, where uniforms are mandatory (as a charter, it has slightly different rules than other city schools).
“It’s made my life so much easier,” she said. Before they switched to Patrick Henry, the children adhered to Southampton Elementary School’s optional uniform policy. “It was a huge cost savings for us,” said Sykes. “It made mornings easier. We tell our children that it’s not about what they have on, it’s about going to school for the purpose of learning.”
Lamont Bagby represents the Fairfield district on the Henrico County School Board. A former educator, he’s also the parent of a son who wears a uniform at Adams Elementary, which has an optional policy. “I hear from parents, educators, and principals that it’s worthwhile,” he said.
In Henrico County, eightyfive percent of parents and instructional staff would have to approve a uniform initiative to make it mandatory.
Bagby believes that a uniform can help children focus on classroom instruction and help reduce bullying.
And he’s heard the arguments against uniforms, too. “You’ll hear people saying it doesn’t give children an opportunity to express themselves,” he said. But he’s got a comeback to that.
“It’s my intention for that child to express themselves through language arts and their artistic God-given talents, as opposed to their attire.” Are mandatory uniform policies legal?
According to the Virginia Department of Education, yes. But the VdoE has issued guidelines for school districts to consider, including strongly recommending a oneto two-year period for parent input before adopting a policy.
Some people have complained that uniform policies violate students’ first amendment rights. Many who oppose such policies point to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969), a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that defined the constitutional rights of public school students. But the Tinker case focused more on students’ right to free speech (in that case, wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam war) than on dress code. In its decision, the court stated that the problem did not relate to regulation of length of skirts, type of clothing, hairstyle, or deportment.
Many lower courts have recognized that student clothing may be a form of expression, leading to a need for balance between the interests of the school and students’ free expression rights. In several states, federal judges have upheld school uniform policies in the face of constitutional challenges by parents and students. Long story short: The Supreme Court has never handled a dress code case.
Legalities aside, some parents don’t think uniform policies will save students’ time or parents’ money anyway.
Henrico parent Cassandra Grafton experienced uniform policies firsthand when her family lived in Kansas City, which has a uniform policy. “People love the idea of uniforms because it takes the thought out of what to buy, results in fewer arguments, and makes enforcing a dress code easier on school staff,” she said. “In theory.”
In reality, she said, purchasing uniforms became difficult if a child outgrew them in the middle of a school year. “You end up having to special order…and next thing you know, you’re paying fifty dollars for a white polo shirt for your 3-year-old.”
Grafton also found that she ended up purchasing more clothes for the children, since they were reluctant to wear uniform pieces outside the school. “All the policy did was put more of a burden of financial cost and storage on the parents.”
“But one of the beautiful things about a uniform policy,” said Bagby, “is that you can have community partners who support it. For students who can’t afford it or who maybe didn’t have time to get things washed, they could have a donation closet at school with uniforms so that the child could pick things out.”
“It made going to school every day a lot easier,” said Faraone, the JMU student who attended St. Gertrude. “I think it created a more relaxed atmosphere when at school because what people were wearing was not a big deal.
“I really did love having a uniform and I honestly miss it now being in college and having to pick out my outfit every day,” Faraone said.
For Sykes, one of the best parts of Patrick Henry’s uniform policy is the days when Charlie doesn’t have to wear one. “Occasionally, we’ll have a dress-down day. We let him dress however he likes on that day. It’s a big deal for him and he really enjoys it!”
If you’re interested in finding out if a uniform policy is under consideration at your child’s school, you might start by posing the question at the next PTA meeting or contacting an administrator at your child’s school. According to Andy Jenks, director of communications and public relations for Henrico County Public Schools, “if a particular school community desires school uniforms, then certainly we would make every effort to accommodate those wishes in accordance with School Board policy.”
Says Jenks: “It’s always been the practice of Henrico County Public Schools to listen to what our stakeholders want.”