At the Huntington School in Brockton, students arrive to class each morning dressed smartly in navy blue, khaki, and white. The uniforms make for a familiar scene, now for the fourth year.
Thirty miles south, Wareham school officials are considering introducing uniforms next year, joining the Huntington and a smattering of others around the state that require students to dress the same when they show up to learn. No decision has been made, said Schools Superintendent Kimberly Shaver-Hood of Wareham, but officials are in serious discussions.
“Would this be a viable option for our school district?” said Shaver-Hood. “We’re looking at what our options are.”
Uniforms, which have long been a fact of life for students at private and parochial schools, are gradually making their way into more public schools across the country. Between the 1999–2000 and 2009–2010 school years, the percentage of public schools that require students to wear uniforms increased from 12 to 19, according to the US Department of Education.
Advocates of uniforms say they boost school pride, relieve peer pressure, and help students stay focused on learning. Critics say there is no conclusive evidence of the benefits of uniforms, and they needlessly infringe on the students’ rights to express themselves and learn in a diverse environment that is reflective of the real world.
In Massachusetts, public school students wear uniforms in cities such as Springfield, Holyoke, Lawrence, Revere, Worcester, and Fall River. Uniforms are also required in some charter schools, such as Foxborough Regional Charter School and the Advanced Math & Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not track how many public schools require students to wear uniforms. “We don’t keep data on this,” said department spokesman JC Considine. “Individual districts determine their policies on uniforms.”
Some districts, such as Springfield, require all students, from elementary grades through high school, to wear them. Others leave it up to the individual schools to decide.
The Huntington School, a K-5 elementary school on Warren Avenue in Brockton, is the only school in the city’s public school system that requires uniforms. Students follow a straightforward dress code: Pants, skirts, and jumpers must be khaki or navy blue; shirts must have a collar and be either navy blue or white. They can be any brand, and purchased at any department store, as long as they adhere to those guidelines. Many of the boys and girls wear navy polos and khakis to school. Some girls wear navy blue or tan jumpers with white blouses.
Students also have the option of buying school logos that they can add to their uniform. The logos have been a hit with the youngsters, said June Saba, principal of the school, which enrolls 500 students. It has been nearly four years since uniforms were introduced here.
“Overall, I’d say it’s been a tremendous success,” said Saba. Now “I can’t imagine not having a uniform [policy] in place in school.”
There are no hard data to show that students are doing better in uniform than they were before, but Saba says that, anecdotally, the overall effect has been “overwhelmingly positive.” She says she has been approached by other principals interested in bringing uniforms to their schools.
“Our students are very well dressed. They look great,” said Saba. “We get a lot of positive feedback from the community. Some parents want it to go to the whole district.”
There are teachers who say the uniform program has improved school culture, and parents are supportive because it saves them time and money, she said. “There’s no worry about what their kids are going to wear in the morning,” she said.
Saba says if a student shows up in street clothes that do not meet Huntington’s dress code, there are spare uniforms in the main office they can borrow. But so far, the students have been following the rules, she said.
Parental involvement has been key, she said. Before introducing the uniform policy in 2010, Huntington school officials conducted surveys, discussed the issue with parents, and held fashion shows to get the students and families more involved in the selection process, according to Saba.
In Revere, uniforms have been so successful that they have spread to other schools. Revere’s school superintendent, Paul Dakin, said the uniform policies in his district have been “driven by each school” and all six elementary and three middle schools in the city have them.
“I don’t hear any complaints about school uniforms,” said Dakin. “Parents are telling us it’s saving them a lot of money.”
In Malden, students at the Linden STEAM Academy began wearing uniforms for the first time this year. The school, which enrolls 900 students in grades K through 8, is the only public school in Malden that has uniforms, according to principal Rich Bransfield.
“We had a lot of parental input,” said Bransfield. “There were people who did not agree [at first]. School uniforms in public schools . . . they didn’t think that was the way to go. There were a lot of questions.”
Students at the Linden STEAM Academy wear polo shirts that are navy blue, pale yellow, or white, along with khakis or navy blue pants. There is also a T-shirt option.
“Six months into it, I think we have overwhelming support,” said Bransfield.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “The kids have been fantastic. Everyone’s been real cooperative. What we’re finding is that the kids are OK with the uniforms.”
Bransfield likes the concept of school uniforms because “it lets kids know that when you’re in school, it’s time for business; it’s not a fashion show,” said Bransfield, who has worked in the Malden public school system for 31 years.
There’s also less of a chance of a bully making fun of someone by saying, “You’re wearing the same shirt all week,” he said. Because everyone is wearing the same thing.
“It makes school more businesslike,” said Bransfield. “I think it also helps with school spirit, by showing we’re all in this together. . . . There’s camaraderie. That’s why athletic teams wear the same shirt.”
But although there might be advantages to school uniforms, it is not a policy that should be taken lightly. The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts does not hold an official position on the issue but encourages families to ask questions about the claimed benefits.
“We’d encourage those opposed to or not sure about the policy to ask questions about the claims that supporters make about the beneficial effects of school uniforms,” said Christopher Ott, spokesman for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “It’s especially important to weigh those claimed benefits against the benefits from other options, like reducing class sizes or making other changes. Requiring uniforms can also raise questions about how the policies get enforced and what the punishments for breaking the rules might be.”
For some, it is a philosophical question. For Shaver-Hood, it is about being practical. The Wareham superintendent says she wants to provide parents with an easy, affordable way to outfit their children that will also “level the playing field” for students when they’re at school.’’
“Our goal is to make it very cost-effective,” she said. “Our goal would be to have little stores where people can trade in uniforms. We all know kids grow extremely fast.”
Shaver-Hood said she has heard a lot of positive feedback so far. But according to published reports, some students have not been as receptive to the idea; one high school student said a mandatory school uniform policy would be “terrible” and only cause more problems.
Shaver-Hood acknowledges that “being a kid is very difficult, and everyone wants to fit in.” But she says she hopes uniforms would help reduce bullying and the peer pressure to wear the latest top-of-the-line brand-name clothing. She says she is not looking to hinder students’ individuality; she simply wants to make life easier for both the students and their parents and guardians.
“We’re going to look at what options exist and put together some sample uniforms,” she said. As far as colors and specific styles go, “that’s still up in the air.”
Dress codes by the numbers
Percentage of public schools in the United States that required students to wear uniforms:
In 2009-2010 school year:
10 percent of high schools in the United States required uniforms
19 percent of middle schools
22 percent of elementary schools
In 2009-2010 school year,
higher percentages of city schools reported requiring students to wear uniforms:
35 percent of city schools reported requiring students to wear uniforms
19 percent of suburban schools
10 percent of schools in towns
9 percent of rural schools
SOURCE: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics
Around the state
A sampling of Massachusetts public schools that require uniforms
Holyoke: Four schools
Revere: Elementary and middle schools
Springfield: All schools
Fall River: Elementary and middle schools
Lawrence: All schools
Worcester: One middle school and seven elementary schools have adopted
voluntary uniform policies
Brockton: One school
Malden: One school
Marlborough: One charter school
Foxborough: One charter school
Examples of school uniforms
Huntington School (Brockton)
Uniforms can be purchased at any store.
BOTTOMS: Khaki or navy blue pants, skirts, and jumpers
TOPS: Shirts must have a collar and be navy blue or white.
Foxborough Regional Charter School
School colors are navy blue, tan, and white. Uniforms are supplied by School Pride Uniforms Inc. on Route 18 in Weymouth.
BOYS: solid navy blue or khaki/tan dress pants or shorts; solid navy blue, white, or tan school logo polo shirt or oxford; solid navy blue, white, or tan school logo sweater or sweatshirt (T-shirts and turtlenecks may be worn underneath, but they must be solid navy blue, tan, or white).
GIRLS: navy blue or tan dress pants, skirt, shorts, or school logo jumper (no higher than 2 inches from the knee); solid navy blue, white, or tan school logo polo shirt, oxford, or collared blouse; solid navy blue, white, or tan school logo sweater or sweatshirt (T-shirts and turtlenecks may be worn underneath, but they must be solid navy blue, tan, or white).
Linden STEAM Academy (Malden)
The uniform can be purchased at Walmart, Sears, Burlington Coat Factory, Lands’ End, and Sparks Department Store in Malden.
BOTTOMS: khaki or navy blue; long pants, knee-length shorts, skirts, jumpers, or skorts (shorts that resemble a skirt); skirts and skorts must be worn with white or navy tights, leggings, or knee socks; sweatpants (solid navy or STEAM Academy style).
TOPS: Navy blue or yellow; long- or short-sleeved polo shirt (with collar; no logo); T-shirt (navy or yellow with logo); sweatshirts (solid navy or STEAM Academy style).
Advanced Math & Science Academy Charter School (Marlborough)
Uniforms supplied by Donnelly’s School Apparel and Lands’ End
BOYS: AMSA logo polo shirts (white, light blue, pink, gray, and yellow); AMSA logo white oxford shirt; navy blazer and tie are optional; khaki or navy blue pants or shorts (shorts must be no more than 3 inches above the knee; no cargo shorts/pants); AMSA logo cardigan, crewneck sweater, fleece jacket or fleece vest (navy or burgundy); solid-colored shoes.
GIRLS: AMSA logo polo shirts (white, baby blue, pink, gray, and yellow); AMSA logo white blouse; navy blazer and tie are optional; khaki or navy blue pants, shorts, skorts, or skirts (skirts and shorts must be no more than 3 inches above the knee; no cargo shorts/pants); AMSA logo cardigan, crewneck sweater, fleece jacket or fleece vest (navy or burgundy); solid-colored shoes.
SOURCES: Linden STEAM Academy; Huntington School; Advanced Math & Science Academy Charter School website; Foxborough Regional Charter School websiteEmily Sweeney can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
In Zion, Ill., 50 miles north of Chicago, Jerri-Lynn Williams, the principal of Shiloh Park Elementary School, says she loves driving in each morning and seeing the children gathering, more of them each week, in the red-white-and-blue uniforms she introduced this school year.
''They look so nice and neat and crisp,'' Ms. Williams said. ''It's probably only about 40 percent of them wearing the uniforms so far, but it's growing. We're going to do a tally soon, and if there's the parent support I think there is, I'd love to make it mandatory next year.''
These days, uniforms are less likely to be a matter of plaid pleats and white dress shirts than, as at Shiloh Park, persuading students to wear navy pants or skirts and red, white or blue tops.
At most schools, uniforms are voluntary. In Boston, for example, of 125 schools, 58 have voluntary uniforms and 18 have mandatory uniform policies.
While a smattering of public schools had uniforms starting in the 1980's, the practice did not become widespread until 1994, when Long Beach, Calif., adopted a districtwide mandatory rule on uniforms for all elementary and middle-school students. Its much-publicized report the following year said school crime had decreased 36 percent.
Last year, after President Clinton's State of the Union address included a pitch for school uniforms, the United States Department of Education sent every district in the nation a pamphlet on the subject, beginning with a section titled ''School Uniforms: Where They Are and Why They Work.''
School administrators in many cities say that parents, teachers and students alike are surprisingly enthusiastic about uniforms.
''Everywhere I've gone, it's been received with great excitement,'' said Mr. Russo in New York. ''Even kids who initially don't like the idea say they feel they're being treated with more respect. It really breeds a lot of unity and self-esteem, and it makes it cheaper for parents to clothe their kids for school.''
Legally, said Ms. Strossen of the A.C.L.U., school-uniform policies have been vulnerable to challenge only when they do not make provision for free uniforms for those who cannot afford them, or when they fail to include a provision allowing parents to opt their children out.
''We've won some of those cases, quite recently, in California and Florida,'' she said. ''But once you have an opt-out provision, and it's enforced, it takes away the coercion, and there's not much of a legal leg to stand on.''
As a practical matter, many parents favor school uniforms, finding that they make it both easier, and cheaper, to outfit their children each day.
In their effort to eliminate fashion competition, some districts not only dictate colors, but forbid clothing with visible labels or logos.
''The whole point is to have the children to be equal, not to divide the haves and have nots,'' said Dr. Joe Haynes, the superintendent of schools in Greenville, Miss., who this year expanded his district's policy to cover all students and ban all labels. ''Some principals said labels might signify things, and we wanted to avoid any possibility of gang problems, of some group of kids deciding to buy the same brand, and thinking the little thing on their shirt represents something.''
Responding to the no-label pressure, and to students' strong attachment to brand names, a Georgia apparel company, Duck Head, created a line of school clothes with discreet logos on flaps that can be tucked away in a pocket during class.
At Shiloh Park, as at many other schools, students get a day off from uniforms every Friday. And like students elsewhere, Ms. Williams's younger students have taken to the uniforms more happily than the older ones.
In some classrooms, teachers, too, are wearing the uniforms.
''We have one class where everybody shows up in uniform, and I think it's because the teacher does too, and she's someone who has incredible rapport with the parents and kids,'' Ms. Williams said.
While most school systems, like New York City's, allow individual schools to determine their own dress code, a few require uniforms districtwide.
But even where the school district has made no move toward uniforms -- and where the issue is more one of image than concern about costs, crime, or gang colors -- some parents start their own campaigns for uniforms.
''We see a lot of private school kids around here, and we liked the look,'' said Vicki Burns, a parent who helped get uniforms this year at Palmer Elementary School, outside Houston. ''The district hasn't been interested, but we saw the need, and we just decided to go ahead and check into it. The principal at our school had the kids vote on it in their mock election, and they voted it down. But then there was a parent vote, and it got overwhelming support.''
A parents committee chose red, white or blue polo shirts, with navy or khaki bottoms, with a logo. The uniforms are available either through a local store or at the catalogue company Lands' End, which started a uniform department in time for this year's school opening.
''We're getting 40 to 50 percent of the kids in uniform on a given day,'' said Ms. Burns, who pays her 10-year-old twins, Martin and Meghan, an extra $1 a week in allowance to wear the uniform. ''I can see it's growing, so it's pretty clearly a success.''
Meghan likes the uniforms, but her brother does not. ''I think it's easier than deciding what you're going to wear each day,'' she said. ''But some of the boys don't like tucking in their shirts.''Continue reading the main story