Just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean your child can wear it to school
By Michael Brindley
When giving advice to parents on back-to-school shopping, Nashua middle school Principal Colette Valade has the following words of wisdom: “Don’t be a slave to fashion.”
The clothes students can wear – or can’t wear – to school has always been a tricky issue, for schools and parents. For schools, they must adapt to the constantly-changing fashion fads. Students want to look cool, but sometimes, looking cool may push the limits of acceptable clothing for school and Valade must make sure the school’s dress code is keeping up with those trends.
For parents, there is the pressure to buy their children the latest clothes. But Valade, principal of Elm Street Middle School, said the mistake many parents make is assuming just because something is being sold at a major retail store, that it must be acceptable for school.
“When parents go to the stores, they see the latest fashion craze,” she said. “For example, skinny jeans are in vogue. But skinny jeans contain spandex, which is not allowed.”
Valade said the school includes a copy of the dress code in the student handbook every year and for the most parents, students and parents comply. But it is during the warmer months, either in the beginning or end of the school year, when she and other administrators have to crack down on things like pajama pants and shorts and skirts that are higher than the two-inches-above-the-knee rule. Slippers, tank tops, and any shirts that reveal the midriff are also banned, she said.
“The way that students dress influence how they behave in school,” Valade said. “It’s the same for adults at work. For students, this is their work and it’s important we teach them that dressing a particular way is expected.”
Statistics show that while still in the vast minority, more public schools than ever are taking to implementing mandatory school uniforms. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007–08, 18 percent of public school principals reported that their school required students to wear uniforms. That is up from 12 percent in 1999-2000. Also, in 2007–08, 55 percent of public school principals reported that their school enforced a strict dress code, an increase from 47 percent in 1999-2000.
The New Hampshire Department of Education has no record of public schools that require uniforms, though most do have dress codes.
“Certainly, several of our private schools have uniforms,” said Judith Fillion, an administrator with the department. “But I’m not aware of a public school that has uniforms.”
Nashua Superintendent Mark Conrad said he always recommends that parents go to their student handbooks to check the dress codes for their children’s school.
“From my perspective, you really just need to take a very common sense approach to make sure students are appropriately dressed,” said Conrad, who also has two children who went through the Nashua School System.
But as far as uniforms coming to Nashua, Conrad said that isn’t a change he is looking to pursue, though there have always been informal discussions about the pros and cons. Conrad said until he sees some convincing evidence that uniforms make some kind of difference academically, he’s not inclined to pursue it. Moving forward with mandatory school uniforms would be a controversial issue and Conrad said he would want to know there would be some value added. The research he’s seen hasn’t proven that, he said.
“I’m not convinced that simply requiring uniforms makes a difference in climate or achievement in school,” Conrad said. “Quite candidly, if we were to go down that road, I’d want to see first what the experience was of the public schools that did.”
Jack Daniels, principal at St. Christopher Elementary School in Nashua, has experience on both sides of the fence. He spent most of his education career working as a public school principal in Nashua and Londonderry. But since retiring from the public sector, he has continued working in private schools. Having worked in schools with and without uniforms, Daniels said he’s seen first-hand the positive difference having uniforms can make and said he prefers it.
“Uniforms give students a kind of sense of belonging and pride. The uniform designates this is their school, their community,” Daniels said. “In a sense, it also speaks to a work ethic. When I put this on, I am a student of St. Christopher. The expectations are I will work and will perform and that my actions reflect the school mission.”
The school’s uniforms must be purchased through a special vendor in Nashua, but Daniels said the school works with families who have trouble affording them. For the most part, Daniels said parents appreciate not having to worry about buying clothes to make sure their kids fit in with everyone else. Uniforms eliminate that competition and separation that takes place in public schools, Daniels said.
“The uniform is really an economic equalizer,” Daniels said.
Todd DeMitchell, education professor at the University of New Hampshire, said that while school uniforms are being touted as an education reform movement in public schools, there is no research he has seen that shows it improves student achievement or behavior.
“From what I have been reading, there are probably just as many public schools adopting uniforms as there are getting out of it,” DeMitchell said.
Some schools have created an optional uniform system, where students and parents can choose to wear them, DeMitchell said. But that creates another host of problems, he said. There are several court cases that have upheld the right of public schools to enforce a mandatory uniform, he said.
Daniels said there is a still component of his job to make sure students are wearing their uniforms, but it is not nearly the time he spent in public schools making sure the dress code was being followed. However, Valade said she would rather have staff deal with enforcing the school’s dress code than implement a mandatory uniform.
“Even with uniforms, you’re always going to have issues,” Valade said. “Part of dressing is to have some sense of individuality. Having uniforms prevents that.”
Michael Brindley is an award-winning journalist and new contributing writer to Parenting New Hampshire Magazine.