School uniform debate experiences revival
If you're not up on the latest in teenage fashion, just ask Thomas Miller and Corey Stocksdale.
The two Danville ministers have seen it all — quite frankly, too much, they'll tell you — in their combined 21 years as volunteer lunchroom monitors at Danville High School.
"It's very safe to say that some of them are not very modest" in their dress, said Stocksdale, the associate/youth pastor at the Community Church of God.
He and Miller were on lunch duty recently when they got to talking about how the girls' skirts seem to get shorter and shorter every year while the boys' pants seem to sag lower and lower.
"It's a concern, not just of ours," said Miller, the senior pastor of New Life Church of Faith. "The teachers and assistant principals spend too much time making sure students are following the dress code. They shouldn't have to do that. That's time that should be spent on education."
Now, Miller, Stocksdale and other area ministers want the Danville school board to address the problem by implementing a districtwide uniform — for all public school students — at the start of the 2014-15 school year.
And the board seems willing to hear them out, said its president, Bill Dobbles.
"We're not talking a blazer with a crest and a tie that would create a (financial) burden on families. We're talking a collared shirt and pants that will create a professional-like atmosphere," said Miller, who has pushed for a uniform policy in the local public school system off and on for nearly a decade. "We believe that will help eliminate some of the time spent on correcting the dress code and decrease other problems like bullying and gang violence."
A similar proposal was heavily debated by school officials, parents and students as recently as 2011, during a series of public forums and meetings to review the district's student handbook, the Ownership in Education manual. The plan called for requiring the district's elementary and middle-school students to wear "businesslike" attire — generally solid-color shirts with a collar and slacks, skirts, jumpers and shorts.
Consequences for noncompliance would have ranged from a warning to a three-day out-of-school suspension.
But board members never acted on the proposal due to a lack of parental support. A slight majority of parents who were surveyed voted in favor of the proposal at Liberty, East Park and Cannon elementary schools. A slight majority voted against it at Edison, Garfield and Meade Park elementaries and North Ridge and South View middle schools.
Will things be different this time around? Maybe. Dobbles said board members are open to reconsidering the idea and will begin discussions at a special study session at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Jackson Building, 516 N. Jackson St., Danville.
"The last time we dealt with uniforms, there was a feeling that the community had to buy into it in order for it to be successful," Dobbles said. "It's a new board, and I don't think everybody feels this way now."
Champaign paves way
Currently, Northeast Elementary Magnet School students are the only ones in the Danville public schools who wear uniforms. Kids there have sported white, blue and khaki-colored outfits since the K-5 school reopened as a magnet school 17 years ago.
In Champaign, five elementary schools have uniforms — Barkstall, Garden Hills, Kenwood, Stratton and Booker T. Washington STEM Academy. Their uniforms vary slightly by school but generally are white, navy and khaki-colored outfits, said Stephanie Stuart, community relations coordinator for Champaign's Unit 4 district.
"In our district, school communities are allowed to make the decision at the school level, with district approval," Stuart added.
Students at other Danville and Champaign schools, as well as all Urbana public schools, don't have mandatory uniforms but do follow general dress codes — Danville's, for instance, prohibits hats, hoods and sunglasses inside; halter tops, pajamas, slippers and wallet chains, just to name a few. Those dress codes are reviewed regularly and updated on an as-needed basis, according to school officials.
The scientific research on making students wear uniforms and its impact on student behavior and academic performance is both minimal and mixed, officials said. "You can find a study to support whatever you want it to," said Kenwood principal Lisa Geren.
Geren said she collected enough anecdotal evidence during her six years in Danville — two as a teacher at Northeast and another four as principal at the Catholic Schlarman High — to see the benefits of school uniforms. Her background was a big reason she pushed for them about 2 years ago at Kenwood, a school with 380 students, 75 percent of whom come from low-income families.
"The benefits I saw at Northeast are the same ones I see at Kenwood. It levels the playing field," she said. "When the children walk through the door, they aren't special for the brand they're wearing. Every child is special and unique for who they are as a person."
While Geren never witnessed children being bullied for wearing off-brand clothes or the same clothes day after day, she did see how both affected many students' self-esteem — negatively.
"It's that feeling of 'I'm not worthy. I'm not good enough, so I can't be this or that,'" she said. "Uniforms put everyone at the same advantage. Students know, 'I'm counted' and 'I'm valued for what I say and what I do, not for what I wear.'"
When Geren first proposed mandatory school uniforms, parental support wasn't unanimous. One common complaint kept cropping up. "Some of them had concerns about the expense," said Geren, who acknowledged there is an upfront expense.
Shop for girls' uniforms at the Gap in Champaign's Marketplace Mall, and you'll find pre-sale prices like $29.95 (for pants or a jumper), $24.95 (skirt) and $16.95 (polo).
The Sears store in Danville's Village Mall offers families a uniform coupon at the beginning of the school year, assistant store manager Debbie Watson said. But that won't cover a boy's basics; a plain polo and pants retail at $52.
The financial toll will surely be debated in Danville, a district that is about 77 percent low-income. That has created some reluctance among school board members to adopt a mandatory uniform policy.
Mary Albeanese, the parent of a Danville High School senior and sophomore, believes the intent is good. But like many opponents, she worries that uniforms will put a financial strain on families.
"Some families can't even afford to purchase gym uniforms," Albeanese said of the T-shirts and shorts, which run about $10 apiece for high school students.
"A lot of people have already purchased school clothes for their kids for the coming year and given them to them for Christmas," Albeanese continued, adding that she's among them. "Come springtime, if they tell us we have to purchase specific clothes for school, that's more of a burden on low-income families."
And Albeanese isn't convinced the type of uniforms that have been suggested will actually level the playing field, saying, "You're still going to have the kids who say, 'I purchased my polo at Banana Republic, and you got yours from Kmart.'"
Geren argues that uniforms are more cost-effective in the long run, that parents would only need to buy a couple of outfits for each child. They wouldn't have to purchase as many personal tops and bottoms for kids to wear to school, which would amount to a savings for many.
That's not the only case against cost that uniform proponents make.
Several discount retailers — including Target and Wal-Mart — offer uniforms in their stores and online, which drives down prices. Older siblings are able to pass the uniforms down to younger siblings. Plus, many public schools and Catholic schools, including Holy Cross in Champaign and Schlarman in Danville, all have uniform "closets" — rooms with clothing items that parents have donated to the school after their children have outgrown them.
"We even get donations from people in the community," said Kim Norton, principal at Danville's Northeast. "Buying uniforms has never really been a problem for our families. If they've needed something, they've been able to go to the uniform closet and get what they need."
"The kids take such good care of them, so they always look like new," added Beth Frasca, whose two children have attended Holy Cross since they started school. "We love the uniform. They take the focus off of what the kids are wearing and put it on education. And I feel it's just so easy. We never have that argument in the morning about what to wear."
Nathan Lenstra, the assistant pastor at Connexion Church in Danville, hopes the district's Ownership in Education Committee recommends a uniform policy. The committee, which is open to all community members in the district, began reviewing the student handbook — including the dress code — in November. It will continue to do so over the next few months.
Chairwoman Sharon Phillips, principal of South View in Danville, said the committee will forward any recommendations to the school board in April. Then the board will vote on them in May, with implementation likely to take place at the start of the coming school year.
While Dobbles believes board members may be open to school uniforms, he said they'll likely consider a policy — possibly for only elementary and middle school students — that would be phased in over time.
"Our hope is for this to be districtwide," said Lenstra, who works with low-income students at the Fair Oaks public housing project in Danville and has seen students being teased for wearing the same clothing several days in a row.
"That just contributes to their low self-esteem. I think it will also promote school unity and pride. When you're on a sports team, you wear a uniform. This will be like we're all on the same team. We're in this together."
But Danville High School freshmen Jasmine Cora and Shakearra Pittman argued that school pride doesn't stem from students' wearing matching clothes, and uniforms won't necessarily alleviate problems either.
"People will still do the stuff they do," said Pittman, who was dressed in a hot pink fleece jacket and leopard print leggings. "I don't like it when everybody's the same. I like my clothes to express my individuality."
Not all of her peers feel the same.
"I actually want to wear a uniform," said Danville freshman Justin Daubaris. "I don't think it's going to affect grades. But I do think it will decrease bullying. Some kids get looked down on because they wear clothes from Wal-Mart or shoes from Payless like they're dirty because they don't got money. I think (uniforms) will make people more confident in themselves."
All dressed up
School uniforms are mandatory for all students at six area public schools
Uniform: Cardinal red, white or navy blue long- or short-sleeve shirt with a collar; khaki or navy pants, skirt, jumper and capris; red, white or navy sweater, sweatshirt or sweat jacket; no logos, insignias or decorations on clothing except for the Barkstall logo; belt with loops; plain white, black, brown or navy tennis shoes or street shoes.
Adopted: in 1998
Booker T. Washington, Champaign
Uniform: White, navy blue or light blue dress, long- or short-sleeve shirts with a collar; navy or khaki pants, shorts, skirts, skorts or jumper; solid color sweater and navy sweatshirt with no logos, insignias or decorations; belt with belt loops; closed-toe shoes.
Adopted: in 2011
Garden Hills, Champaign
Uniform: Red, white or navy blue polo shirts and sweaters; khaki pants or skirts; belt with loops; tennis shoes.
Adopted: in 2013
Uniform: White, navy blue, light blue, pink or cardinal red long- or short-sleeve shirts with a collar; navy or khaki pants, shorts, skirts, skorts or jumper; solid-color sweater or sweatshirt with no words, insignia or decorations except for the Kenwood logo; belt with loops.
Adopted: in 2011
Northeast Elementary Magnet School, Danville
Uniform: White short- or long-sleeve shirt with a collar; black, khaki or navy pants, shorts, skirts, skorts or jumper; belt with loops; white or black shoes.
Adopted: in 1997, when school opened
Uniform: Navy blue shirt with collar; navy or khaki pants, dress or skirt; navy sweater or sweatshirt with no pictures or writing.
Adopted: More than a decade ago