Dressing by the book

Uniforms: At Hampstead Elementary, pupils' biggest decision on opening day of school was whether or not to wear the new optional school outfit.

August 31, 1999|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN STAFF

Back-to-school nerves kept Christina Reginaldi from touching her pancakes, but she ate a few bites of sausage, brushed her teeth and neatly taped two quarters' worth of ice cream money to the inside of her lunch box.

It was a first day of school like any other year -- except for the uniform.

The 9-year-old was clad in a red polo shirt and pleated khaki skirt, adhering to a new voluntary uniform policy at Hampstead Elementary School. About half of Hampstead's 647 pupils arrived yesterday looking like Christina, in bright red tops and khaki bottoms.

The policy makes Hampstead the first public school in Carroll County to have uniforms. It was adopted by Hampstead's PTA executive board after a survey showed nearly 79 percent of responding parents supported uniforms.

Proponents say uniforms will foster more team spirit among pupils and eliminate feelings of inferiority that come when a friend has a more expensive pair of high-top sneakers or bluejeans.

But some parents complain the PTA forced the policy without ample opportunity for parental input and relied too heavily on a survey that drew a response rate of 55 percent. They also fear a voluntary policy might create more feelings of insecurity among pupils, if they are worried about whether their decision on the uniform will be accepted by their peers.

If a few households are any indication, the to-wear-or-not-to-wear decision is a sensitive one, demanding a lot of thought among parents and children.

Christina, before heading to the bus stop yesterday, quietly pondered what she would do if a friend -- not in uniform -- asked her why she decided to wear one.

The fourth-grader had rehearsed her reply: "I had to, my mom made me, and because I'm more comfortable," she said as if reading from a script.

Less than a mile away, Mary Ann Hoffman's daughter, a third-grader, laid out her reasons for wearing a long black skirt with butterflies and a creme-colored blouse to school on the first day -- instead of a uniform.

"I don't really look good in red," said the 7-year-old, whose mother asked that her first name not be used in this article. If she wore a uniform every day, the girl said, "I would never get to wear different colors, and what I like to wear."

The youngster said she might reluctantly wear a uniform later -- "if everyone was wearing a uniform and I was the only one not wearing one, the only oddball."

Hampstead Principal Monica Smith said she has no control over whether the PTA adopts a policy that is voluntary. She is as anxious as many parents to see what effects, if any, the policy will have.

Smith said Hampstead doesn't have any of the problems -- violence, discipline problems, lack of cooperation among pupils -- that traditionally give rise to uniform policies in public schools.

"You can't solve a problem if you don't have a problem," Smith said.

Yesterday, no incidents were reported of pupils making fun of one another for wearing -- or not wearing -- uniforms.

Smith said that, except for the preponderance of red in the halls, opening day was like any other.

Rosemary Reginaldi, the PTA treasurer -- and a mother of three Hampstead pupils, including Christina -- said many parents are excited the policy will eliminate the once-a-day debate with their children over what to wear.

"We basically did this because parents wanted it," she said. "People are just so happy."

One Hampstead parent, Dana Hoffert, is not happy.

Hoffert said the PTA didn't make it clear the policy was voluntary. (A PTA cannot by law require uniforms in school). She learned it was voluntary only after spending $250 on eight red shirts, five pairs of khaki shorts and six pairs of khaki jeans for her daughter, Shelby.

When Shelby, a second-grader, learned some friends would be choosing their outfits, she asked her mother if she could drop the uniform.

"I'm not going to force her if half her class isn't doing it," Hoffert said.

Hoffman said the PTA needs to realize widespread concern exists. She urged members to hold an open session on the issue.

"Let's do this as a group, and be together as a team," she said. "This issue is splitting the school."

In some families, the choice of whether to wear a uniform did not belong entirely to pupils.

Kim Brady said her son, Mark, a third-grader, was reluctant to wear one.

"He was worried a lot of kids would not be wearing them," she said. "He wasn't thrilled."

But Brady liked the uniform idea. She said a uniform lets a pupil "be their own person" instead of trying to wear certain kinds of clothing to impress peers.

She wanted her son to take part.

Mark acquiesced after his mother promised to buy him sneakers since she would be saving so much by buying only uniforms for the school year.

Parents said they spent $250 to $400 on uniforms. The PTA is providing assistance to families who qualify for free or reduced lunches and has stressed that used uniforms are available at several stores in the county.

Initially, even Christina Reginaldi had trouble letting go of her clothing freedoms -- she had been excited this year to wear bell-bottom jeans to school.

Her mother promised to buy her bell-bottom khakis, but said wearing no uniform was not an option for her children.

"They're in elementary school -- they're not going to tell me what they are going to wear," Rosemary Reginaldi said. "Now everything is coordinated. It's a no-brainer. You eat your breakfast. You brush your teeth. And you get out the reds and khakis."

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