Students in uniforms: models of what can be

January 15, 1995|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

In a development more haphazard than planned, Baltimore is demonstrating to urban school systems across the nation how to dress students in uniforms.

Although the system has no exact figures, officials estimate that more than 100 of the city's 121 elementary schools have policies recommending -- but not requiring -- uniforms, usually color-coordinated blouses and jumpers (or skirts) for girls; trousers, dress shirts and ties for boys.

Since no school requires uniforms, the extent of compliance depends on a school's parents' organization, said Frank J. Whorley, principal of Mount Royal Elementary and Middle School in Bolton Hill, who said all of his students wear uniforms and are provided one if they can't afford it. In some schools, fewer than 20 percent comply, however.

Proponents say uniforms save parents money in the long run and promote safety. "We know right away when a stranger is in our midst," said Romaine Chase-Bobbitt, president of the Mount Royal PTA.

The practice also tends to "concentrate students' minds on the business at hand," said Mr. Whorley. Or, as James E. Patterson, principal of Pimlico Elementary School, put it, "Kids are more aware of why they're in school. They can concentrate on what's in their minds instead of what's on their bodies."

Students, of course, still aren't uniform in uniforms. They have ways to express their individuality through hairstyles and other means, several said. Meanwhile, said Sharie DeGross, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Mount Royal, "I feel safer in a uniform. There aren't as many fights."

Mrs. Chase-Bobbitt's 13-year-old eighth-grader, Janill Bobbitt, said she "wasn't that happy" when Mount Royal switched to uniforms a few years ago, "but there are safety reasons why it's good, and other people don't make fun of you because of the clothes you wear."

"They want us to look professional," put in Teddric Childs, 11, a Mount Royal sixth-grader. Mount Royal doesn't require ties for students below the fifth grade, but a visitor recently observed several kindergartners in neckwear and a smattering of bow ties in all grades.

A handful of middle schools, most recently Pimlico Middle in Northwest Baltimore, have switched to uniforms after a vote of parents and teachers. And in many schools, such as Mount Royal and Brehms Lane Elementary in Northeast Baltimore, principals and administrators occasionally wear uniforms with their schools' colors.

Mount Royal is also among many schools that keep a store of uniforms that they give for free to students who can't raise the $35 or so necessary to purchase the clothes. And Mr. Whorley encourages his graduating eighth-graders to leave their uniforms behind. Ninety-eight percent do, he said.

The move to uniforms began in the city eight years ago when a group of citizens circulated a petition and got the support of then-Mayor Clarence Du Burns, Superintendent Alice Pinderhughes and several educators, including Mr. Patterson.

"It was primarily a safety issue then," said Ray Bennett, a former television newsman who has become a paid consultant to other school districts interested in uniforms.

"There had been a half-dozen youngsters killed over leather coats and tennis shoes, not to mention fights and scuffles," he said. "We figured that uniforms, coupled with enforced dress codes that would prohibit such things as jewelry, might help, and might have educational value as well."

(Ironically, shoes aren't included in the policies at most city schools, but principals said boys in schools with uniforms have been encouraged to wear dress shoes rather than sneakers. "Nikes don't go well with a shirt and tie," said Mr. Whorley.)

Since 1987, the number of "uniformed" schools has grown gradually and without policy dictates from North Avenue school headquarters.

Private schools, of course, always have required uniforms. The dress policy at Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, for example, says uniforms "reduce costs and lessen competition." The school spells out elaborate requirements for dressing in summer and winter, primarily in Bryn Mawr's official color, hunter green.

Not all schools have embraced uniforms. At Francis Scott Key Elementary and Middle School, Principal Arthur P. Chenoweth and his parent leaders abandoned a uniform policy three years ago after "we found students and parents kind of lost interest."

Mr. Chenoweth said his Locust Point school is relatively small and in an isolated part of the city. "You walk too far in any direction, and you're in the water. So we know who the strangers are without having to have uniforms, and, to be honest, I haven't sensed thefts or fighting occurring because of the clothing students wear."

JTC No education research has found a correlation between uniforms and school achievement. "Our scores are up," said Mr. Whorley, "and I'd like to think that's related to uniforms, but I can't prove it." And Mr. Chenoweth's scores at Francis Scott Key are up, too.

Today, Mr. Bennett fields a dozen inquiries a month from around the country, and several other urban districts are dressing their students up. Long Beach, Calif., recently became the first U.S. public school district to require uniforms of all students through the eighth grade.

Mr. Bennett said students are buying uniforms from a variety of sources at about $38 for girls and $35 for boys. He said he'd like to raise enough money to manufacture the uniforms in Baltimore. "Then, in addition to the educational benefits of uniforms, we'd be putting people to work."

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