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Philadelphia School Board to Require Uniforms

Share School Issues Center GraphicPhiladelphia public school students will be required to wear uniforms in September. Will the new rule improve student behavior? Will it result in more serious students and higher test scores? What do Philly's parents and school administrators think? What does the ACLU say about the new requirements?

May 12, 2000 -- Philadelphia public school students will have a new look in the fall -- school uniforms. On Monday (May 8), the Philadelphia Board of Education voted to require school uniforms for all students -- about 200,000 -- in all grades in the city's 259 public schools. The city will be the largest school district in the nation to require uniforms.

Parental response has been favorable, according to Paul Hanson, a spokesman for the School District of Philadelphia. Based on the number of e-mail messages the school administration has received this week, parents are in favor of the uniform policy three to one, he said.

See the related Education World story:
School Uniforms: Panacea or Band-Aid?

Does requiring students to wear uniforms directly affect school environment and student achievement, or is it the equivalent of painting the walls of a crumbling building -- merely cosmetic? What does the research say? What do students, teachers, and parents say?

Under the new regulation, each school will establish its own uniform policy, including colors and styles, from traditional plaid jumpers to polo shirts with khaki cargo pants. A committee of parents, students, teachers, and principals will meet before the next school board meeting -- tentatively scheduled for the end of May -- to recommend some parameters for acceptable school uniforms. Those guidelines will include specific, flexible provisions for high school students, details on how uniforms will be selected, and a plan for student exemptions from the policy.

"The real issue is for opt-out provisions, for any reason, and how the uniform policy will be enforced," said Larry Frankel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania. "The parent who really doesn't want the school to dress their child and who is trying to raise an independent-thinking child, should be able to opt-out for any reason," he said.

A liberal opt-out provision will avert a whole lot of problems legally and for the school administrators, Frankel told Education World. Until the policy is established, it is premature to begin any legal proceedings against the new mandatory uniform policy, he said.

Philadelphia students will not be disciplined for not wearing their school's uniform this coming school year, but will be in the following year, 2001-2002, according to a school district press release. The Pennsylvania legislature paved the way for school uniforms in 1998 when it adopted a law that enabled local school boards to develop school uniform policies.

"The board had no illusions that this policy would be a 'silver bullet' that will solve all of the problems facing public education," said the board of education president, Pedro A. Ramos, in a press release. "Uniforms won't -- by themselves -- make students safer or smarter. But what uniforms can do is improve school climate. And from where we sit, that is a pretty good benefit."

A voluntary school uniform policy has been in place for more than a decade in Philadelphia, with about two dozen schools reporting that uniforms reduced the amount of student discipline. Five years ago, Kearny Elementary School began a voluntary school gym uniform policy. Parents generally cooperated with the gym uniform, so the school's parent and teacher association established a school uniform policy. The uniform requires light blue shirts -- any type, such as plain T-shirts, polo shirts, sweatshirts, or button-down oxfords -- and dark blue pants. Blue jeans are not permitted. The school has provisions for any family that cannot afford to purchase uniforms for their children.

Even the school staff wears the school colors. "They felt they should be role models," said Eileen Spagnola, principal of Kearney Elementary School.

Initially, about 65 percent of the students complied. In its second year, between 75 and 80 percent wore uniforms, and for the past two years, 100 percent of the school's 410 students have worn the uniform, Spagnola told Education World.

"It made a difference and contributed to the calmness of the school," Spagnola remarked. "Children have a different mindset when wearing that outfit. There is a change in their attitude." That mindset focuses on learning and reduces the amount of teasing and fighting among students, the number of classroom disruptions, the number of students disciplined and suspended, she said.

The dramatic change in behavior was particularly noticeable when the school had dress-down day. "Well, that day was really chaotic," Spagnola said. "The staff and I really noticed the difference in their behavior. I said no more!" Dressing down became more of a fun day, not a school day, she said.

The uniform policy permits parents to purchase clothes from any department store, although many parents now prefer purchasing jumpers, skirts, and pants from a school uniform retailer, she said.


Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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