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Voluntary compliance

No universal policy on DCPS uniforms

(Published August 27, 2001)

By JULIE BELLAMY

Staff Writer

D.C. Public School students recently modeled the latest school uniform fashions at Dunbar Senior High during a lunch break for teachers participating in training sessions.

Going back to school means teachers, books and -- for many students in the District -- clothes that match their schoolmates’. It’s time to slip into those school uniforms.

Most public elementary schools and about half of the middle schools in the District recommend that students wear a uniform, a decision that is made by principals in consultation with the faculty, local school parent groups and students. Students aren’t penalized for not wearing a uniform since whatever policy is established is voluntary.

For a variety of reasons, staff at these schools say it’s a nice option for parents to have. School uniforms save parents money, allow students to focus on academics instead of clothes and help create a better-behaved classroom.

"Uniforms help keep down the competition in terms of dress and daily attire. It also cuts down on fighting and what the kids call ‘joning,’ when kids make fun of each other’s clothes," said Princella Hemby, assistant principal at Malcolm X Elementary School in Southeast Washington.

The Parent-Teacher Association and administrative team at Malcolm X decided to introduce uniforms about 10 years ago, Hemby said.

Almost three years ago, Eliot Junior High School in Northeast Washington started recommending that students wear a uniform of khaki or blue pants with a white or blue polo shirt, said Principal Andre Roach.

Every year the school has to sell the idea of uniforms to the parents, since they cannot enforce the uniform policy. For this reason, Roach said that they do not keep track of how many students wear uniforms.

Officials at schools that have opted not to use uniforms see no need for them.

"Schools that use uniforms often do so for disciplinary reasons, but we don’t have those problems," said a school official at Horace Mann Elementary in Cleveland Park, one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods.

At Shepherd Elementary in Shepherd Park, parents voted against the uniform option years ago and the PTA has never voted on it again, said one school official.

School uniforms, which can range in price from $25 to $50, may save money in the long run, but buying even a few outfits for growing children in preparation for the school year can be costly.

The city’s first-ever 10-day sales tax holiday on clothing in early August was expected to help parents defray the cost of uniforms, said Gloria Dobbins, principal at Nalle Elementary in Marshall Heights.

Also, the First Baptist Church of Marshall Heights donates uniforms year-round to neighborhood children, she said, and often parents donate uniforms to other students when they outgrow them or no longer need them.

Long Street, a New York-based uniform company, recently donated 300 vouchers to the D.C. public school system to help parents pay for their children’s school uniforms, said Harriet Cook, the company’s vice president of marketing.

Students receiving the $30 vouchers can use them at selected retail stores in the District, which have stocked themselves with enough inventory so students can redeem their vouchers in time for the coming school year, she said.

School officials said they expected to distribute the vouchers to low-income families whose children attend the nine schools that were chosen as "transformation" schools for the coming year – an intensive effort to change the entire schools’ culture to spur improved student achievement.

Styles of school uniforms – most of which are made of a cotton-polyester blend – haven’t changed for years, said Airnora Pratt, general manager of Gina’s Uniforms in Northeast Washington.

But considering that school uniforms used to come in only one color – navy blue and white – when they were almost exclusively worn by parochial school students, uniform colors have changed significantly, she said.

"Each school has different standards, but uniforms now come in burgundy, for example, and every style of plaid imaginable," she said.

There are several benefits to school uniforms, from saving money to making kids feel comfortable, Pratt said.

"Although I am quite sure that given the choice, they would rather wear their own clothes," she added.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator