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Alachua schools' dress code could hold lessons for Pinellas

Students at Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville have some options under the Alachua School District’s uniform policy: All students in elementary, middle and high school must wear a solid color shirt with a collar and solid color bottom.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Students at Littlewood Elementary School in Gainesville have some options under the Alachua School District’s uniform policy: All students in elementary, middle and high school must wear a solid color shirt with a collar and solid color bottom.

GAINESVILLE

It's not hard to see why Erika Almond was displeased this summer when the Alachua County School Board approved mandatory uniforms for the district.

Before coming to Littlewood Elementary School, Almond taught in Detroit at a school with a strict uniform: white, collared dress shirts, navy slacks and plaid skirts. Not even socks and shoelaces were left to the imagination.

"I was the uniform police every single day of my life," Almond said.

Ultimately, Alachua school officials crafted a code that left students with a lot of wiggle room, requiring only that they wear collared shirts, and that both tops and bottoms are solid colors and without holes.

Purple leggings? Okay. Graphic T-shirts? Out.

The Pinellas School Board seems to be headed down the same path, last month asking superintendent Julie Janssen to focus on tightening the current dress code instead of moving the county toward the traditional territory of plaid and khaki.

Across Florida, public schools have followed their private school counterparts by embracing uniforms. Some have instituted them districtwide, while others, such as Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando, allow it school by school. But the end result has been varying takes on the "uniform" concept that include Osceola County's strict khaki and white or navy blue policy on one end and Alachua's considerable fashion freedom on the other.

"It's really not very draconian at all," said Eileen Roy, an Alachua County School Board member who voted against the code but has come around to it. "It eliminates low-cut tops where a lot of cleavage is showing."

Barbara Sharpe, a School Board member who voted for it, said one parent gushed about the policy because the students "looked like Skittles."

A recent visit to Littlewood revealed students wearing a mishmash of styles: cargo shorts, untucked polos and a Tinkerbell hoodie. (The county decided not to restrict jackets and sweat shirts.) Even Almond, the elementary teacher, is pleased. Despite her fears, the relaxed take on uniforms is easy to enforce and eliminates the Mean Girls factor.

"I can definitely say that I haven't seen as much cattiness from the girls," she said.

Down the road at Westwood Middle School, the county's largest middle school with 1,000 students, principal Jim Tenbeig said referrals are down by 40 percent compared to this time last year.

Tenbeig credits uniform dress for improved conduct. It's easy for administrators to spot kids who don't belong on campus, he said, pointing to an incident that morning when a 17-year-old runaway showed up sans polo and solid color pants. And if the students are upset by their dress, he said, they don't show it.

"Students at this age want parameters set for them," Tenbeig said. "It gives them a sense of security."

Adults who like uniform dress tend to say the same thing on its behalf: Uniforms are equalizers. That's one of the points Janssen made when she first proposed uniforms for elementary and middle schools in Pinellas. The new policy probably will be formulated early next year when the code of student conduct is revised, school spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said Monday.

Jim Frey, 39, thinks Alachua officials should have developed a stricter policy, requiring everyone to wear the same color and style. Kids at his 9-year-old daughter's magnet program still know who is well off and who isn't.

"These kids can still express that they have money," he said.

Teachers and principals are split on whether the looser uniform policy is really an equalizing factor.

Tenbeig, for example, is relieved that adolescent boys can no longer show off expensive athletic jerseys. And Almond's students "all look the same" in her eye.

But Beth LeClear, principal of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Elementary School, doubts the equalizing argument. Her school has the county's highest free and reduced lunch rate, she said. Worrying about clothes adds to distractions from education.

Churches and other charities have donated polos for students who can't afford new clothes at her school and others. Still, she and others note it's pretty obvious where clothing comes from.

Shirts from Walmart just don't look like shirts from popular stores like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch, where students can spend $50 on a polo with a tiny moose label.

"Did it break the status (issue)?" LeClear said. "Of course it didn't. We just have more status logos."

The teachers and administrators who support Alachua's policy like its flexibility.

But try selling that to a classroom of 12- and 13-year-olds. Tenbeig did, and the seventh-graders offered up a litany of fashion woes, bemoaning the unworn and interesting clothes languishing in their closets.

"I don't like the plain collared shirts," said Jose Cuevas, who layered a garnet Florida State University T-shirt beneath his white polo for pop.

Others, like Jermill Bibb, griped about the lack of diversity. "I just don't like that we all look alike," he said.

Kaitlyn Kennedy, a Littlewood fourth-grader and Almond's daughter, said she doesn't think following a dress code cuts down on horseplay.

"It's the same old, same old," Kennedy said. "They're just rushing in, screaming and yelling."

Alachua schools' dress code could hold lessons for Pinellas 11/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 9, 2010 7:31am]

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