There's uniform success in certain city schools

September 08, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

By the time I got there, the tiny auditorium at Cherry Hill Elementary School was packed with people: Mothers and fathers and grandparents; squirming babies, restless school children and bored adolescents. It was a standing-room-only crowd, humming with excitement and energy.

This was on a brisk evening in March 1987. Folks had turned out to consider a proposal that Cherry Hill become one of the first public schools in the city to adopt school uniforms.

"You're going to see something really special, really important," said Ray Bennett, a former television reporter who had become active in the Cherry Hill community. Mr. Bennett had urged me to come. "I want you to see what parents can accomplish on their own when they're given the chance," he had said.

So I came. I saw. I watched as objections were conquered.

Said one parent, "If we can put uniforms on our children, and they can be unified with their classmates, then they won't have to be walking around with their heads down, saying they don't have this and they don't have that. Maybe they will learn to take some pride in themselves and their schools."

"What we are trying to do is bring this school together as a family," said another parent. "Anyone who cannot afford a uniform should come to us and we'll work something out."

The parents' major fear that evening was that they would get all fired up over the idea only to have the bureaucracy or the school board step in with niggling objections and shut down their effort. It had happened to parents before, people complained.

"It will not happen this time," insisted Mr. Bennett passionately. "We've talked to the administration. We've explained what we're trying to do and why. And we have their word -- their word -- that they will not interfere."

And so on March 25, 1987, the parents of Cherry Hill Elementary School agreed to adopt school uniforms. The bureaucrats did not interfere. By the first day of school the following September, the students at Cherry Hill were in uniform as scheduled.

Yesterday, I went back to Cherry Hill for an update.

"It has worked really, really well," said Geraldine Smallwood, the school's principal, pausing from her preparations for the first day of school today. "Last year, 95 percent of our students wore their uniforms on any given day. Children feel good about themselves. They feel good about their school. And it shows in their classwork."

Ms. Smallwood says both attendance and test scores have improved at her school nearly every year since 1987. Last year, attendance stood at 96.5 percent and all grades tested at grade level -- quite an achievement at a school where close to 80 percent of the children receive public assistance.

"And you credit the uniforms?" I asked.

"Yes. Definitely. We tell students that school is their job, that they are supposed to come prepared, and come looking like little professionals. And that's what's been happening."

Wanda Walls-Alexander, who has two daughters at Cherry Hill, says uniforms have been a big money saver for her family. "You can get a complete outfit -- shirt and jumper -- for $11.99. You can't beat that."

"You don't have to worry about the latest style," Ms. Walls-Alexander continues. "You don't have to worry about kids being teased. Kids can focus on their schoolwork."

Nearly every elementary school in the city has adopted uniforms, school officials say. Outfits range from $12 to $14 and are available at children's stores throughout the metropolitan area. Many schools have set up a "uniform exchange" so that parents whose children have outgrown their uniforms can share with needy families. In addition, a modest cottage industry has been created, allowing a small number of parents to earn money by making uniforms. Urban schools nationwide are following Cherry Hill's example.

All in all, Baltimore's school uniform movement represents an extraordinary success for a system that is continually adopting and abandoning educational experiments with the reckless fervor of mad scientists.

Want to know the key? The experts kept their hands off. The parents did it all for themselves.

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