January 2, 2010

Whatever happened to Cleveland schools' new policy that requires high school students to wear uniforms?

Thomas Ott/The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, OH

Effective this school year, the policy requires high school students to wear collared shirts or blouses and slacks, skirts or shorts in a limited selection of solid colors

The district does not have a system for tracking violations. But a spokeswoman says nearly all students have conformed to a policy, effective this school year, that requires them to wear collared shirts or blouses and slacks, skirts or shorts in a limited selection of solid colors.

Cleveland's elementary-school students have been wearing uniforms for more than two years. Until now, older children had a dress code that focused more on what they could not wear -- for example, hooded sweatshirts.

High school students who flout the new rules get some slack: a first violation results in a call home; a second, a conference with the parents; and a third, in-school suspension. The district does not have a system for tracking violations.

The district also has continued helping the city's struggling families absorb the cost, setting aside $600,000 in a tight budget to pay for 12,000 uniform vouchers.

Each $50 voucher pays for two tops, two bottoms, a belt and a sweater. So far, the district has handed out 2,399 vouchers to high school students and 7,100 to elementary students.

Larry Cooper, general manager for the Cleveland branch of Morgan Services, a uniform and linen rental company, donated 600 polo shirts to Lincoln-West High School, where his wife teaches. Cooper gave the school twice that number last year. He was moved by stories of students staying home from school because they had no clean clothes.

School districts have varying reasons for requiring uniforms, but some commonly cited include improving discipline, screening out gang colors and curbing fashion competition that embarrasses students from poor families. Nearly a fourth of U.S. public-school students wear standardized apparel and the numbers are growing, said Matt Buesing, a consultant to French Toast, a school-uniform supply company in Martinsville, VA.


Buesing, who also helps school districts put dress codes in place, was on the board of a township district in New Jersey that mandated uniforms. He credits the policy with helping to raise test scores and improve behavior.

Cleveland's claim of almost 100 percent compliance is credible because most resistance usually comes before the requirement takes effect, said Buesing. Cleveland school surveys showed students were not wild about the idea, but parents and teachers supported it.

Parents often discover that limiting their children's school wardrobe saves so much money that they decline vouchers, Buesing said. Cleveland officials played up the cost issue in arguing for high school uniforms.