July 25, 2009

Norwich schools getting word out about uniforms
Policy starts in September for elementary students

MICHAEL GANNON/Norwich Bulletin, Norwich, Conn.

For all the benefits education officials touted about the switch to school uniforms in September, they were realistic about the start-up problems the policy might face.

And there are many. How to get the word out to parents. How to secure vendors locally and online. How to outfit children who are homeless or have limited means. In some schools in Norwich, more than 50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Nevertheless, with six weeks left before school starts Sept. 2, Superintendent Pamela Aubin said Friday, “It’s going very well.”

Aubin said the uniforms are available at EbLens and Wal-Mart in Norwich, and at Old Navy in Waterford.

A Bulletin check of local stores also found most, if not all, uniform options were available at Kohl’s and Target. And eight online vendors are listed on the Board of Education Web site.

For boys, a week’s worth of clothing totals $91. It breaks down to three average-priced polo shirts ($30), two button-down shirts ($30), two pairs of slacks ($26) and six pairs of white socks for $5.

Add a skirt and a pair of shorts ($22) and a jumper for $15, and a girl’s outfitting for one week comes to $128.

Students in pre-kindergarten and the elementary schools will be required to wear uniforms this year. It’s likely the middle schools will be added in September 2010, after the program is evaluated.

Fifth-grader Mackenzie Burke, 10, and her brother, Riley, who is entering second grade at Samuel Huntington Elementary School in the fall, already are well outfitted.

“My wife, Michelle, is pretty organized,”their father, Kevin Burke, said. “She ordered a lot of things online and we got some stuff at Old Navy.”

Burke said the cost wasn’t that bad, though things were generally cheaper online, he said.
“And it will eliminate a lot of arguments between my wife and daughter over what to wear every morning,” he said with a smile.

“I wish (the uniform) included jeans,” Mackenzie said. “I like warm colors, red, brown, pink.”

Stopping fights

School officials said fights among students sparked by clothing were a major consideration in adopting the policy.

While the policy is officially a uniform and not a dress code, Aubin said it is “probably the most flexible one you’ll find.”

The uniform includes light blue collared shirts and blouses or polos with collars; navy blue or khaki slacks for boys, dark blue slacks, shorts, skirts or jumpers for girls; white or navy blue socks. No wording, lettering or logos are permitted.

When the policy was being proposed, Aubin and other proponents pointed out that uniforms can save money, especially considering they are clothes that could be worn to any functions outside of school, too.

“I guess I could wear it other places,” said Riley Burke, though he did not sound completely convinced.

Michael Arking, president of Frenchtoast.com, a school uniform superstore, said Norwich’s color scheme is fairly common for uniforms.

“We’ll have it in stock year round,” he said.

Help for poor families

Aubin said the school district will have policies in place by mid-August to help low-income families, but they aren’t finalized yet.

“Right now it’s one uniform for each child,” Aubin said, explaining the help that will be available to families in need.

“We can’t do everything,” she said. “But it’s a start.”

The district hopes to start a uniform bank, where uniform components donated by families whose
children have outgrown them, will be available to low-income families.

Janice Thompson, an administrative coordinator at Norwich’s Human Services, said the department will have “a very small amount” of money it can use to purchase gift cards for families whose children qualify for free lunches and who need help buying uniforms. That also will be available in mid-August, she said.

Board of Education Chairman Charles Jaskiewicz said private citizens have been leaving cash donations at the district’s central office to help purchase uniforms.

Worried about cost

Stefanie Grandchamp, whose son Daniel Plummer attends Samuel Huntington, said she is concerned about cost.

“I’m a stay-at-home mom and (unemployed),” she said. “It’s going to be expensive. And I don’t think uniforms are needed. My son dresses like a kid.”

Denise Williams, whose daughter goes to Veterans Memorial Elementary School, visited the Love Me Two Times consignment shop in Taftville Friday only to discover it doesn’t sell children’s clothes.

But she did find sympathy from employee Kristin McKenzie, whose daughter goes to John M. Moriarty Elementary School.

“Now I have to buy school clothes and clothes for play and weekends,” Williams said. “I’m very worried about the cost.”

Aubin said notification was first sent home with report cards in June, though Grandchamp, McKenzie and Williams said do not recall receiving such a notice.

“They should have started with the middle schools, because that’s where I think the board is seeing problems with the kids dressing,” McKenzie said. “My daughter asked why don’t they make them wear uniforms if that’s where the problem is.”