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No-fuss school uniforms set tone

Supporters like the simplicity: no more disputes about short shorts and bare skin and no rivalry for high-priced fashion.

By ELISABETH DYER
Published November 4, 2005


BALLAST POINT - Last year, students at Ballast Point Elementary could wear almost whatever they wanted to school.

Brooks Lovely favored Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirts. Athena Pchelins liked to pair a cute tiger top with jeans. Sean Naughton's favorite: a shirt labeled Sponge Dog No Pants.

Now the fifth-graders have to dress like everyone else: in navy blue or khaki bottoms with red, white or blue shirts with collars.

Ballast Point is among several local elementary schools that adopted a uniform policy this year in an effort to improve academic scores and decrease peer pressure. Anderson on Fair Oaks Avenue and Mitchell on Bungalow Park Avenue also joined the growing number of public schools nationwide that require uniforms. Parents who opposed uniforms were allowed to opt out of the requirement within the first weeks of school. About a dozen at each school did.

At Ballast Point, fifth-grader Crystal Ortiz was not happy to swap her edgy T-shirts, with sayings like I'm not perfect, but closer than you, for a uniform. "They're ugly and you can't express your dress creativity," she said.

But her mother, Nancy Ortiz, was among 75 percent of Ballast Point parents, the minimum needed, who voted for the uniform policy last spring. She says it's simpler getting her daughters ready for school.

"I don't have to go through the what-am-I-going-to-wear in the mornings and making sure it's appropriate for school," she said.

Kay Wann, grandmother of Anderson third-grader Daniel Housted, prefers the uniforms because they save money and put all students at the same level, regardless of parents' income.

At Anderson, the School Advisory Council, the PTA and faculty led the push for uniforms.

"It has been a real plus," said principal Betty Lou Turner. "Most of my kids have them on and they look good."

Many school leaders agree.

In 1996, 3 percent of public schools had uniform policies. The number rose to 12 percent in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

The increase followed former President Bill Clinton's call to school leaders in his 1996 State of the Union address to make uniforms a part of school safety and discipline. As a followup, all U.S. school districts received a manual citing the benefits of school uniforms, including a decrease in violence, theft of designer clothes and gang members wearing colors. School officials also can better recognize intruders on school grounds.

From these goals, one might expect a focus on high schools. But mandatory uniforms have appeared mostly in elementary, choice and inner city schools. The only high school in Hillsborough to require uniforms is D.W. Waters Career Center.

In 2002, Miami-Dade became the first Florida public school district to require uniforms in two high schools. This year that number jumped to 15.

Eric Bergholm, principal of Plant High School, doesn't foresee them in his school.

"A lot of kids individualize themselves by the way they dress," he said. "I don't think, at this age, it would change behavior."

So far, Hillsborough officials have left the choice to individual schools. Eighty-nine require uniforms, 39 have voluntary codes and 102 have none.

Several middle schools require uniforms, including Rampello Downtown Partnership and Roland Park K-8 schools. Many teachers like the simplicity of uniforms and choose to follow the rules themselves. At Rampello, assistant principal Sandra Spicer wears the school's red and black uniform most days.

While parents usually follow faculty in supporting the trend, some balk at uniformity.

More than 500 parents in Polk County filed suit after their School Board mandated uniforms in 1999 for all elementary and middle schools. The board saw uniforms as a way to quash a rise in gang activity, drug use and violent behavior.

A federal judge ruled against the parents, saying requiring uniforms in public schools is not unconstitutional. The policy remains in force today.

Students have worn uniforms for several years at Seminole Elementary School on Central Avenue, said principal Jackie Masters. She first encountered the requirement years earlier at Tampa Palms Elementary.

"I'm a child of the '70s and I thought, freedom of speech. They need to have the right to wear what they want, to be able to create and look their own way," Masters said.

"But at Tampa Palms we had the haves and the have-nots. I was so amazed the first few days of school. I said, "Oh, my gosh, you can't see who the wealthy children are and who the poor children are. Everybody looks the same.' "

At Seminole, uniforms set a tone of behavior and help students identify with each other, she said.

At Ballast Point, the School Advisory Council led the charge, putting on a fashion show last spring before the vote. Students modeled uniforms borrowed from Tinker Elementary School. Principal Mary Cunningham did not expect the uniform issue to pass but is pleased that it did. It eliminates disputes about short shorts and exposed midriffs.

Some fifth-graders have warmed to the change. K'cey Johnson has time to watch TV in the mornings now that dressing has become a cinch.

Cornika Wright likes that school is no longer about fashion.

"Last year there was competition about who wore the best clothes. Now everybody wears the same thing," she said. "There's no fuss about anything."

- Researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 813 226-3321.

[Last modified November 3, 2005, 08:47:07]


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