Improving the academic achievement of public school students is a multipronged effort. Some parts of the process are clearly relevant to improving achievement, while others may seem tangential.
When Pinellas schools superintendent Julie Janssen called for school uniforms as part of a comprehensive proposal to raise student achievement, I assumed that most board members would object and not have the courage to consider a policy that could be widely unpopular. But only one member, Linda Lerner, objected to Janssen's proposal at last week's meeting.
Uniforms are not new to Pinellas County. At last count, 23 schools require uniforms. Janssen's plan, which is based on one in Osceola County, would require them in all elementary and middle schools, starting in 2011-12. Pinellas would be the only district in Tampa Bay with such a far-reaching policy.
I support uniforms, especially here in Pinellas, where students' low academic achievement and disciplinary problems are clearly linked. Discipline is necessary to create an environment that is conducive to effective learning. I do not believe that uniforms are the silver bullet, that they alone will eliminate the deep-rooted dysfunction in our schools. But from what I have seen in schools elsewhere, I am convinced that uniforms aid the teaching/learning process.
You do not have to travel far to see what I mean. Visit Academy Prep in St. Petersburg, and ask the staff, the students and the parents what they think of uniforms.
And, yes, I understand that public schools, private schools and charter schools are different. I also understand something else: All successful schools, public or private, are led by adults who use everything in their toolboxes that will help them do their jobs effectively. Uniforms, as Janssen knows, are but a tool that increasing numbers of districts nationwide are using.
For generations, uniforms were a mainstay of private schools throughout the United States. Then, in 1994, a California district begin requiring uniforms. According to School Administrator magazine, a year after the district mandated uniforms, fights and muggings in the district decreased by 50 percent and sexual offenses fell by 74 percent. Many other districts nationwide report similar findings. At Ruffner Middle School in Norfolk, Va., for example, the percentage of discipline referrals decreased by 42 percent after uniforms were required.
Not all schools where uniforms are required have seen such dramatic improvements, but few report serious problems.
Research shows that safer campuses and renewed focus on academics are the two broad benefits of public school uniforms. Specifically, uniforms are said to:
• Keep gang colors and other identifiable clique-related symbols off campus;
• Decrease violence and theft because of clothing and shoes;
• Instill discipline among students;
• Reduce the need for administrators and teachers to be apparel police, determining whether skirts are too short or whether trousers are in the sagging zone;
•Reduce distractions for students;
•Instill a sense of community;
•Reduce the distinctions between rich students and poor students;
•Help students and teachers recognize those who do not belong on campus.
Organizations that oppose uniforms, such as the ACLU, argue that uniforms deny students the right of self-expression and may produce subcultures such as the Goths, the punks, the jocks and the preppies.
While some parents like uniforms, others complain about the financial cost. On average, uniforms are more expensive at the outset because parents must pay for all of the essentials. As the year progresses, however, few other purchases are needed.
Pinellas School Board members are aware of the financial burden uniforms may place on lower-income parents and are thinking of ways to help. Many districts around the nation with cash-strapped parents buy the uniforms. Other districts accept charitable donations from individuals and community groups. Pinellas board members say they will find ways for poor students to have uniforms if the policy is adopted.
I think the time has come to at least experiment with uniforms in all of our elementary and middle schools. If we see positive results, we should make the requirement permanent. Janssen is being bold in calling for uniforms. With more schools joining the "failing" list, we should try her plan. It may prove to be a useful tool.