Dressed for success

At Harper's Choice Middle School, a special day to look and feel good

October 08, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Yinka Morakinyo, 13, an eighth-grader at Harper's Choice Middle School, normally wears T-shirts and jeans to school. But on Wednesdays, she makes an effort to look special - in part as a taste of the dress code she'll face one day in the working world.

"It just makes you feel good," said Yinka, who was wearing a jean skirt and lightweight blue sweater. "You start off with a more positive attitude."

That attitude is the goal behind a program called Dress for Success, started six years ago by the school's principal, C. Stephen Wallis.

Each Wednesday, pupils are encouraged to dress as professionally as possible. Boys can wear a button-down shirt and tie, or a polo shirt and khakis. Girls might consider a dress or nice pants outfit.

"The idea behind it is just to enhance the teaching-learning culture of the school," said Wallis, who was wearing a striped button-down shirt, diagonal-striped tie and pleated tan pants on a recent Dress for Success day. "Every student is asked to make Wednesday just a little more special by dressing accordingly."

Wallis, who is running for county executive as an independent, said he has no data, such as better test scores or fewer office referrals on Wednesdays, to show that the program improves pupil behavior. But he said he is confident that it does.

"I tell everyone that my experience over the years is that students feel different about themselves when they are dressed for the occasion," he said. "We believe that it does impact behavior."

The Dress for Success program is part of a number of changes that have taken place at Harper's Choice, which was named the county's choice for the state Character School of the Year, said Wallis. PTA membership has soared to about 400, he said.

Students in Howard County schools already must follow the school system's dress code, which prohibits hats and sunglasses in school, as well as halter tops, tank tops and shirts that expose the midriff. Pants can't be so low or loose that undergarments can be seen, and T-shirts can't depict profanities or profess gang allegiances. Shoes must be worn.

Individual schools can add more restrictions, said Patti Caplan, but she did not know of another school with a Dress for Success day like Harper's Choice.

About half the pupils at Harper's Choice take part in Dress for Success on a given Wednesday, teachers and students say. Sixth-graders are more likely to participate than eighth-graders, and boys are just as involved as girls.

"I tell the kids we're trying to prep them for the world of work," said Wallis.

Doreen Falby said her sixth-grade son, Cameron, participated with no encouragement from her.

"He had done it the whole first month of school, and he's done it all by himself," she said. Dress for Success day fits with the school's message of respect for one another, respect for teachers, respect for learning, she said.

Teachers give well-dressed pupils a hall pass, allowing them to be photographed in the art room. The pass reads: "Your impressive image today puts you two steps toward successfulness."

The photographs, usually of groups of two or three kids mugging it up for the cameras, sometimes with a nicely attired teacher, go on the wall near the school entrance.

"They enjoy it," said art teacher Maxquesar Jones, who takes the pictures. Jones, who was wearing a sleek gray pantsuit with a red blouse, said more kids seem to participate each year. "It's working out and it's catching on," she said.

Students who dress for success are also eligible to win a gift certificate for a meal or some other treat, Wallis said. "I tell the kids it's not a reward, it's just recognizing students for getting in the spirit," he said.

Wallis always wears a tie to work, he said, and teachers always dress professionally. But even teachers seem to get into the spirit of the program. Eighth-grade social studies teacher Patricia Burnett, wearing a ruffled print shirt on Wednesday, said she dresses "a little bit more coordinated" on Dress for Success days.

"I think it's an excellent program," she said. Students like being noticed by their peers and by teachers, she said. "It makes them feel better for the day."

Kathy Kreidler, the gifted and talented resource teacher, said she has seen an effect when pupils dress up. "They just feel good about themselves," she said.

Eighth-grader Anastasia English, 13, wearing pink ballet flats, a pink, black and white striped skirt and a pink shirt, said she dresses up most Wednesdays because "I like to dress up. ... It feels like I'm kind of important," she said.

"I just want to look nice," said Danielle Jackson, 12, wearing a pink skirt, green loafers and a neat jean jacket.

Fiyin Adeyemo, 11, wearing a matching flower-print skirt and top, said her parents encourage her to dress up on Wednesdays.

"It makes me have a positive attitude," she said.

"I think you do better schoolwork when you look good," said Katherine Murphy, 13, who was wearing a pink sparkly shirt over a brown skirt.

And Dana Van der Gracht, 13, who wore a peach shrug over a green T-shirt, said dressing up "gives you a positive attitude. It's a way to show pride, school spirit, all that jazz."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.