Telling a teen what to wear can be exhausting and even futile. So when Charlotte-Mecklenburg school officials were considering adopting student uniforms in three high schools, they recruited designers with insight into what kids would wear: other kids. Included: A look at a program using student designers.
Calling for public high school students to wear uniforms probably sounds like a declaration of war to the average teenager. So when administrators in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Public Schools decided they wanted to try a uniform policy in three low-performing high schools, they turned over the design tasks to people who know best what teens would wear: other teens.
Teams of students from the three high schools -- West Charlotte, West Mecklenburg, and Garinger -- spent months last year working with DezignTech Marketing designing uniforms and learning about the apparel and marketing fields. They even traveled to New York City and appeared on Good Morning America.
Since then, the school system has had a change in administration, and school officials have decided to make the uniforms optional. Early in the school year, students will be able to order the uniforms, said district spokeswoman Latarzja Henry.
"They created a contemporary style line of clothes that kids might wear out of school," said John Fullard of DezignTech, who worked with the students. "It eased the blow of wearing uniforms, when they found out they wouldn't be traditional. They created a line for each school. They have some choices about what to wear."
LEARNING ALL THE STEPS
The uniform design program was one initiative of the High School Challenge Program, a three-year comprehensive plan designed to raise the academic scores at the three lowest performing high schools in the district. A grant funded the program.
"Initially, they [school officials] just wanted to get the uniforms done, but then they wanted to add an educational component," according to Fullard. "They hired consultants and put together a curriculum."
Each school recruited about 15 students, boys and girls, to participate in the program. And the teens soon realized there was more to the process than just picking out appealing swatches and matching colors.
"They had to learn to work within a budget, principles you can apply to any business model," according to Fullard. "We let them choose the fabric within cost parameters. We also taught fundamentals of design and business practices, created a business plan, and went on field trips to different facilities."
Students also were required to chronicle their experiences in a portfolio.
FASHIONABLE AND PRACTICAL
Principals from two of the schools involved in the program, Garinger and West Mecklenburg, said the hands-on experience students gained from working with the marketing professionals was invaluable. "They saw the steps needed to get clothes on store shelves," Jo Ella Ferrell, Garinger's principal told Education World. "These are life-long skills."
"They talked to other kids about the potential changes, worked with a design company about the design and the type of fabric, and put together a budget," West Mecklenburg's principal Dr. Craig Witherspoon said. "They saw the production process in a jeans factory. It was a wonderful opportunity for the kids involved."
The uniforms for both schools have similar components. Garinger students' clothing line includes blazers, skirts of two lengths (knee length and below the knee), solid color long-sleeve and short-sleeve button-down shirts with the school mascot, a wildcat, on them; "dress" jeans ("they look like jeans, but they're not denim," Ferrell said), and a sleeveless vest. The skirts are grey and blue plaid, since grey and blue are the school's colors, and the other items were designed in grey, black, blue, and white.
"The parts are interchangeable," Ferrell said. "They knew what the kids would wear."
West Mecklenburg students came up with a plaid skirt, as well as solid color pants and a blouse for the girls, and a blazer, button-down shirt, and pullover sweater for the boys, designed in the school's colors, said Dr. Witherspoon. "There were more colors involved than with most uniforms," he said. "A majority of the parents liked the design."
Dr. Witherspoon added he expected that several hundred students would wear the uniforms if they were available.
"Some kids do struggle with what to wear to fit in," he said. "At the same time, high school kids are becoming more independent, and more creative."
While understanding the benefits of requiring uniforms, Dr. Witherspoon said he sees them as one part of school reform. "I don't think uniforms alone will improve student test scores."
For her part, Ferrell said she had been hoping that the district would require uniforms for the three schools.
"The uniforms are a way of building pride -- everyone is alike, but has differences," she said. "And it's probably less expensive than the flavor-of-the-month fashion."