Uniforms in public schools? One Fremont school tries the experiment


Picture by David Monniaux under Creative Commons license

To the first generation Indian American, wearing a uniform to school is so ingrained in the consciousness that it is actually a moment of dissonance when you realize you will have to figure out what your child is going to wear every day. When my older child moved from a uniform-requiring private school to the local elementary, clothes shopping for the school year was yet another chore that clogged up an already busy life.

Parents of school-going children in the US have always been resistant to uniforms. There is even an organization called Asserting Parental Rights — It’s Our Duty that actively opposes school uniforms, on the grounds that “the policies trample students’ right of expression and parents’ right to raise children without government interference.”

About one in four public elementary schools and one in eight public middle and high schools in the USA have policies dictating what a student wears to school – but school guidelines mostly restrict themselves to enforcing dress codes that emphasize neatness and adequate cover. Few mandate a specific kind of “common dress”, which is the euphemism that educators and uniform supporters use to make the idea more palatable.

In Fremont, two schools attempted to incorporate uniforms into school policy – one succeeded and one failed.

The first attempt was made at Forest Park Elementary, one of the higher performing schools in North Fremont. The effort was spearheaded by parents prominent among whom was Sridevi Ganti.

“I have old school views,” says Sridevi, trying to find words to explain her interest in promoting a uniform dress code. “When my older son went from Thornton Middle School to American High, I was shocked to see the way kids were dressed.”

“Kids should be focused on their education rather than the clothes they wear,” she adds. Her younger son was still in elementary school and she decided to focus her efforts on implementing uniforms there to begin with.

Sridevi was active as a volunteer at the school and on several committees and she approached the school administrators to get their opinion on the idea. There was institutional support, though Sridevi was warned that it would be a long process. One of the key requirements was a parent survey that required about 80% participation by all parents affected by the new policy and two-thirds assent from those polled.

Before putting out the survey, Sridevi decided to float the idea among parents through the local yahoogroups. Here the entire process broke down. Vociferous and militant opposition to the idea of uniforms from a small group of parents drowned out the low key support the idea had. “This is not India,” said one email, “here kids have a choice.”

The tone of the emails got so rancorous that the principal of Forest Park Elementary had to step in and walk back the school’s desire to move to uniforms. Parents who were generally supportive of the process decided to stay out of the discussion and did not turn in their surveys. Ultimately the plan fizzled due to lack of support.

This September, however, school children in another school in Fremont, Oliveira Elementary, will show up in common dress. This successful initiative is the result of the efforts of their dynamic Principal Roxanne J-Liu.

Roxanne worked as a teacher for several years in a school in Fresno where the students wore uniforms. “My experience there was fabulous,” she says. “Kids came to school focused on learning.”

When she took over as Principal of Oliveira Elementary, she discovered that the school had a similar demographic. She started planting seeds of the uniform idea among parents and teachers during conferences. There were murmurs of dissent, not just from the parents but also from the teachers who were concerned about the additional work it would take to put the policy through. She kept at it for a few years, emphasizing the positives of having the common dress till she felt there was adequate support. She invited dissenters to discussions where they could air their opinions and worked at convincing them for the need for uniforms. “When you wear a suit to work, you take your work more seriously,” is her argument. “A common dress establishes a purpose – that kids come to school to be educated.”

Roxanne then drafted the parent survey and asked the teachers to administer it to the parents during parent-teacher conferences. This ensured a high response rate and locked down the support of parents who were not averse to the idea. Once the adequate level of support was in place, the school threw the discussion open to forums.

“The parents had the usual complaints – that the uniforms would take away the child’s individuality, that the clothes would cost too much,” remembers Roxanne. The school therefore has an opt-out policy though she believes that with the high number of parents supporting the common dress code the opt-outs are likely to conform in time.

Starting September 2nd, the kids of Oliveira Elementary in Fremont will show up at school dressed in some variation of solid colored shirts and pants. There is a range of colors that the school finds acceptable and lots of rewards for the children for compliance.

Roxanne is well aware that this is an experiment. She is actively helping low-income parents to find reasonably priced clothes so it doesn’t impact their pocketbook in already poor economic times and is looking for vouchers that parents can take to consignment stores to find appropriate clothes. The school will ask for feedback in the spring.

Still, the whole process at Oliveira took less than a year while the failed experiment at Forest Park dragged on for several school cycles. Maybe the success at Oliveira can be attributed to the fact that the school has traditionally been low-performing and parents are hungry for any new idea that can give their children an edge and keep them free from distraction. Maybe it was the dynamism and involvement of the principal, as opposed to parental pressure at Forest Park. Whatever the reason, we can be sure that if academic scores at Oliveira show a significant uptick on the heels of the new policy, there will be a  lot of other schools in the neighborhood clamoring to do the same..

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