Alison Moser Stewart can still recall the pressure and persecution that came from wearing the wrong styles of clothes as a kid. Well, at least according to some of her middle-school classmates in Upper Arlington, they were the wrong styles.
Alison Moser Stewart can still recall the pressure and persecution that came from wearing the wrong styles of clothes as a kid. Well, at least according to some of her middle-school classmates in Upper Arlington, they were the wrong styles. So when Stewart picked the Columbus Spanish Immersion Academy in Columbus City Schools for her own two sons, she was pleasantly surprised to learn Sheamus and Duncan would be wearing uniforms of pants and collared shirts in prescribed colors. "The dress code is kind of nebulous within the district," Stewart said. "With the uniform, it is cut and dry. There is nothing to distract from the learning process." Uniforms have long been part of religious and private schools, but in the mid-1980s they gained a foothold in public schools as administrators sought to eradicate bullying and improve academic performance. The subsequent drops in bullying incidents and improvements in learning have led even more schools to consider adopting uniform policies. According to teachers and parents, uniforms can be a common-sense solution to the conflicts that arise between students and even within families. "Non-uniform" attire can magnify economic and social differences between students - like when Janie shows up with designer jeans while Sally comes in thrift-store denim. And parents often will battle with their children over inappropriate wardrobes. "My parents applaud the dress code," said Julieta Dinkins, head of the Columbus Humanities, Arts and Technology Academy on Morse Road. "It makes life so much more workable for them. And it takes so much of the worry out of kids who may agonize how their clothes will be perceived by others." The shift to uniforms in all types of schools gained momentum in 1996 when President Bill Clinton, in his State of the Union address, said that public schools should be able to require students to wear uniforms to help improve safety and discipline. In October of that year, Ohio passed a law allowing schools to adopt mandatory uniform policies, and by the 1997-1998 school year, high schools in Ohio's eight largest urban districts - Akron, Canton, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, Toledo and Youngstown - had. A 2006 study of these districts by Virginia Draa, now a retired professor of human ecology at Youngstown State University, found that in the schools where uniforms were adopted, attendance rates rose 3.5 percent, graduation rates rose 10.9 percent and expulsions dropped 0.6 percent. While Draa did not attribute those changes directly to the uniform policies, she felt there was a significant influence. "I really think it has to do with perception," said Draa. "It levels the playing field for kids so that they don't have the distraction of making fun of each other." Following the publication of Draa's research, both Cleveland and Toledo school districts adopted uniform requirements. There are currently 37 Columbus City schools with such policies. Columbus City Schools' regional executive director Darryl Sanders ushered in a uniform policy during his 2004-2008 tenure as principal of Eastmoor Academy. Sanders said it was parents who made the move toward uniforms when the school changed its name from a "High School" to an "Academy" in the mid-2000s. Like Draa, Sanders said he felt the uniform policy significantly improved student conduct by "leveling the playing field" and it instilled greater pride in students. "The conduct in the hallway and at assemblies is a lot more controlled," Sanders said. "It's like picture day; when kids dress up, we notice a behavior change. "The kids have embraced it. They see (uniforms) set them apart from all other schools. It makes them feel special, and they behave like it." Not everyone, however, is convinced uniforms are the solution to a school's behavioral and academic issues. The Groveport Madison Schools district first considered uniforms three years ago, but it wasn't until 2012 that Groveport Madison High School principal Aric Thomas came before the school board seeking a uniform policy to address near-constant dress-code violations. The board considered the request, but concluded that the data they reviewed did not support the need for a policy and there was no proof of a clear correlation between uniforms and improved academic performance and behavior, said Dee Copas, the district's communications director. The board ultimately tabled the proposal and will revisit it this year. "They decided to make students better aware of the existing policies, and that seemed to help," Copas said. "In terms of support, we were split on parents, but students definitely didn't want it." Stewart, however, said she quickly realized how much easier uniforms could make life for her - and her kids. "The kids complain sometimes, but there isn't any fighting over clothes in the mornings," Stewart said, adding with a smile, "except if they have no clean underwear."