Dennis Hallock, the father of two boys at Tyler Heights Elementary School in Annapolis, was at first skeptical about mandatory school uniforms. They're unnecessary, he thought. They could be ugly. They'd cost too much.
But Hallock's reservations vanished Monday as the family arrived for the first day of classes and surveyed the streams of children clad in khaki and navy blue.
"The kids were a whole lot neater," Hallock said. "Not one person was trying to outdo another."
This week Tyler Heights, along with Meade Middle, became the first public schools in Anne Arundel County to require students to wear uniforms, following a national trend in which a quarter of public elementary schools have some sort of mandatory policy.
Most Baltimore elementary schools ask students to wear uniforms, and they're in a few Baltimore County schools, but no public schools in Howard, Carroll or Harford counties have students in uniform.
Advocates say dressing uniformly eliminates the social pressures and expense of buying trendy or flashy clothes and encourages children to behave better and get serious about learning.
"There's research that shows a correlation between appropriate dress and academic performance," said Eddie Scott, acting principal at Meade Middle on Fort Meade.
They have also improved safety in Baltimore, where Cherry Hill Elementary School in 1987 was among the first public schools in the nation to ask students to wear uniforms, said Jeffrey N. Grotsky, a former chief of staff for Baltimore schools.
"The idea behind school uniforms is predicated on the issue of safety, that means that children wearing them are easily identified on the way to school and in the school," said Grotsky, now a senior researcher at the college of education at Towson University. "The other is that it takes away the distraction of who's wearing what."
For all those reasons, the Anne Arundel County school board adopted a policy last year that allows schools to require students to wear uniforms, but only after following strict criteria.
First, parents must be polled and 70 percent of parents must return the surveys. Of those, 80 percent must be in favor of uniforms. The school community must then research what kind of policy - mandatory or voluntary - it wants, what the uniforms will be, how much they will cost and where families can purchase them, according to attorneys for the school system.
At Meade, the policy is liberal; students wear navy, khaki or black bottoms and light blue, white or black tops.
At Tyler Heights, where the uniform is khaki skirts, skorts, pants or shorts with a navy blue polo-type shirt or turtleneck, parents were overwhelmingly in favor of uniforms, said Principal Tina McKnight.
"Parents felt that in the long run, it'd be less expensive and it would be something to help students keep a focus on learning," she said. "And it would make their lives simpler."
At Tyler Heights, about 70 percent of the students are considered poor, 39 percent are Hispanic and 55 percent are black. Through fundraising efforts, the school was able to offer a voucher for one free uniform to each student.
On the first day of school, McKnight said, out of 278 students, only 14 weren't in uniform and about half of those had at least half the uniform. The school has extra tops and bottoms on hand and lent them to those students.
"They just looked smart," she said. "They looked like they were coming back to school ready to work."
Evelyn Davidson, who teaches English at Tyler Heights to speakers of other languages, said that many of the school's Latino parents were happy with the uniforms.
"It's a sense of belonging to the school, of sharing something from the very beginning," she said. "Even the little ones feel part of the group."
In Long Beach, Calif., the first school system in the nation to require uniforms at every elementary and middle school in 1994, one of the gains was a greater sense of community, said Sue Stanley, chairwoman of the department of family and consumer sciences at California State University, Long Beach. She has studied the use of uniforms there and published her findings.
Though the Long Beach Unified School District has had a significant reduction in school violence, Stanley said it's impossible to say how much can be attributed to school uniforms.
"The success was part of an overall project; they weren't done in isolation," she said.
Though he is an advocate, Grotsky added that the benefits of school uniforms might be largely social.
"It's hard to pinpoint if it has a direct impact on achievement," he said. "But if it affects behavior, that does impact achievement."
David L. Brunsma, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Missouri and author of a book about school uniforms, said there is no proof that uniforms accomplish anything.