August 29, 2010

More Central Florida public schools adopt school uniforms for students

By Leslie Postal / The Orlando Sentinel (orlandosentinel.com)

Nia Slaven looked neat and nice in her khaki skirt and burgundy polo shirt, but if it had been up to her, the 10-year-old would have swapped the outfit for a pretty pink shirt and a pair of jeans.

"My mom wanted me to wear a uniform," said the fifth-grader at Rosemont Elementary in Orange County. "She says it saves her money."

Classmate Khari Brown, 11, said his mother favors uniforms, too. Khari likes his new school polo with a "cool" eagle emblem, but the uniform pants, well, not so much. "I just don't like wearing khaki pants every day," he said.Rosemont is one of at least 10 local public schools that started the 2010-11 school year with new, or newly emphasized, uniform dress codes. These schools join dozens of others that already have uniforms, including all those in the Osceola County school district.

Many parents say they like uniforms for their simplicity and low cost, and many educators say they do, too, convinced they create a sense of unity and academic seriousness.

"I believe uniforms promote a sense of belonging, a sense of just promoting order and academics," said Jessica Abrew, principal of Three Points Elementary in south Orange, which also is pushing uniforms this year.

If students aren't always thrilled, most follow the rules on campuses where the preppie look reigns.

Rosemont Principal Patty Harrelson, who took over last month, had success with uniforms at her previous school, Lake Gem Elementary in Orlando. She is sure that with incentives and praise, Rosemont students, too, will embrace being a "uniform school."

Nationally, uniforms in public schools have gained popularity since the mid-1990s when a California district touted their benefits and President Bill Clinton then plugged them in his 1996 State of the Union speech. Since then, the percentage of public schools requiring uniforms has climbed from 3 to 18 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Florida, uniform-clad public-school students are growing more common, too. Polk County adopted a mandatory uniform policy for elementary and middle schools a decade ago, and in 2008 Osceola required all students to dress in sync. Osceola administrators say the policy has cut down on discipline problems.

This school year, at least three schools in Lake County, three in Orange and four in Seminole County joined the uniform parade. The public-school uniform policies are not as strict as those at many private schools but still narrow down students' fashion choices considerably. Most require khaki, blue or black bottoms and polo shirts in school colors, but allow parents to buy the items from any retailer.

Jane Tarallo, a parent and the PTA president at Crystal Lake Elementary in Seminole, said the school's new uniforms already seem to be setting "a more serious tone within the school."

And at home, they make school mornings less stressful, as her two daughters no longer fret, "Oh, no, what am I going to wear?"

Initially her kids were not happy about uniforms but perked up when they learned school uniforms were sold even at Justice, the store that promises "the very latest" in girls clothes, and came in feminine styles.

"As long as the collared shirts had puffy sleeves, they were good to go. They didn't want to look like boys," Tarallo said, laughing.

Jo LeBlanc, Crystal Lake's principal, said parents pushed for uniforms, and a survey showed wide support among families — but strong opposition from a few, who felt dictating dress overstepped the bounds of a public school.

LeBlanc said she has allowed families to opt out with no questions asked. "We're not going to hard-nose anyone," she said.

But compliance is high, with about 95 percent of students coming to school in uniforms.

At Three Points, Abrew, who became principal last year, decided that this year she would put new emphasis on a not-well-enforced uniform policy. Like many of her families, Abrew is from Puerto Rico where uniforms are standard in both public and private schools, so she figured it would be an easy sell.

It is, said Frances Reyes-Cruz, a Puerto Rico native and a Three Points teacher with an 8-year-old son at the school. "As a parent, I love it," she said.

Parent Carmen Skerrett, who also grew up with uniforms in Puerto Rico, said school uniforms cost less than lots of other clothes, look nicer and seem safer because they make it easier to identify who belongs on campus.

Her daughter, Lizmarie Cuevas, a fifth-grader, wore uniforms last year, too. She didn't mind, but did like Fridays when she could choose her own outfit.

"I wore something cute," she said, with a smile.

Leslie Postal can be reached at lpostal@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5273.