Standing beside tables piled high with khaki pants and blue polo shirts, Via Groceman said she’s glad her children’s public elementary school requires uniforms.
“There’s no fighting about clothes in the morning,” said Groceman, whose kids attend Isely Traditional Magnet in northeast Wichita. “The school clothes are there in one spot in the closet. It’s simple and easy.”
And it’s becoming more popular.
Over the past two decades — since Bostic Traditional Magnet Elementary became the first Wichita public school to institute uniforms in 1995 — a significant number of Wichita schools have adopted standardized dress policies.
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Proponents contend that students take school more seriously and behave better when they dress for it the way professionals dress for work. Others say uniforms enhance school unity, limit brand-conscious peer pressure and make schools safer.
This summer, dress was an issue in teacher contract negotiations as well, as Wichita school board members and district leaders continued a years-long push for stricter guidelines on teachers’ attire. Teachers will vote this week on a proposed contract that includes a new section on professional dress.
Last year Wichita’s administrators and service employees agreed to new, stricter guidelines for professional dress.
And the issue was hotly debated recently at Christa McAuliffe Academy, a new K-8 school in southeast Wichita.
Although about 60 percent of McAuliffe families voted in favor of standardized dress, the new school will not have uniforms when school begins next week. That’s because district policy requires 75 percent approval from families and staff members before a school can implement standardized dress regulations.
“I think some (parents) are disappointed because they’re coming from schools with standardized dress, and they like that,” said Shawn Springer, principal at McAuliffe.
Many of the new school’s students are coming from Bostic, Minneha Elementary and Coleman Middle School, which have required uniforms for years. Others are from Seltzer, Price-Harris and other schools that don’t have standardized dress policies.
“But there’s an understanding that while we might not have standardized dress, we won’t have a free policy either,” Springer said. “It’s not going to be ‘anything goes.’ ”
Ortiz Elementary on North Arkansas, another new school opening this fall, will have standardized dress after about 80 percent of families and staff voted in favor. Enders Elementary, a new neighborhood open magnet school in south Wichita, will not have standardized dress.
This year, a dozen Wichita elementary schools and about half the district’s K-8 and middle schools will require some form of standardized dress.
Most call for khaki or navy blue bottoms — pants, shorts, skirts or jumpers — and polo or oxford-style shirts in white or school colors. Many require belts. Some allow school T-shirts. In winter, students can wear school sweatshirts over collared shirts.
Standardized dress policies usually are generated by parents, said Alicia Thompson, assistant superintendent for elementary schools. One or more parents will propose the change, then lobby the principal to put it to a vote.
“They say it’s easier because they don’t have to argue and fuss and fight with their kids. … A lot also say it’s less expensive because they don’t have to buy the name-brand jeans and those things,” Thompson said. “It has appeal on a lot of different levels.”
In an effort to keep costs down, most schools that require uniforms allow simple garments that can be found at department and discount stores. Many, including Bostic and Isely, also have “resale shops” during enrollment and throughout the school year, where families can donate outgrown clothes or buy used items for as little as $1 each.
Groceman, the Isely parent, said her children — a fifth-grade girl and third-grade boy — don’t seem to mind school uniforms.
Her son, Jack, a third-grader, said he’s not a fan of the “tucked-in” rule, however.
“It’s just hard to keep your shirt tucked in all the time,” he said, shaking his head.
While the majority of Wichita public schools haven’t adopted standardized dress policies, all schools have dress codes that don’t allow clothing or accessories that “disrupt the school environment or impede learning.”
Although dress codes vary from school to school, officials caution parents and students, particularly middle- and high-schoolers, against some universal no-nos:
No cleavage. No spaghetti straps. No saggy shorts. No bare midriffs. No short shorts or micro-miniskirts. No dark glasses. No hats, bandannas or chains.
Thompson said teachers and administrators monitor hallways closely at the start of the school year, when temperatures are high, clothes are skimpier and students may be unclear on the rules.
“We want children to come to school dressed appropriately for learning,” she said. “Anything that’s not appropriate or distracting to the school environment, we want to minimize that.”
Principals continually tweak dress policies to address common problems or fashion crazes. Several years ago, for instance, most Wichita-area schools specifically banned Heelys, a brand of shoes with wheels embedded into the soles. Many also prohibited Silly Bandz, a popular brand of shaped rubber-band bracelets that youngsters wore by the dozens.
This year at Robinson Middle School, new rules require that all shirts have sleeves and that leggings can’t be worn as pants. At East High, students are no longer allowed to wear running shorts.
Even Allison Traditional Magnet Middle School, which employs one of the district’s strictest standardized dress policies, added a rule this year that socks must be “solid in color with no logos.”
The school also clarified its guidelines on “dress down days,” which students occasionally earn for accomplishments such as high test scores, specifying that jeans can’t have holes, rips or frays and “must sit at the top of the hip bone or higher.”
“A very conservative school uniform is part of our philosophy, and we want to continue that … even on jeans days,” said Justin Kasel, principal at Allison.
‘Pull up and cover up’
At McAuliffe Academy, the new K-8 school that narrowly voted down standardized dress, a note to parents says students “shall wear clothing of appropriate size as determined by the principal” and cannot wear anything “vulgar, offensive, frightening, sexually suggestive or gang/alcohol/drug related.”
Springer said “frightening” could mean any type of item or style that could scare a younger child — think spiked jewelry or shirts that feature characters from a horror movie.
“We’re going to have 5-year-olds here as well as 13-year-olds, so if it looks like anything from a bad dream, that’s not OK,” he said.
Some parents and staff members felt strongly that the new school’s policy should require shirts to be tucked in. Others noted that many current styles of shirts aren’t designed to be tucked in.
So Springer settled on a new phrase he hopes will be clear enough to students and families: “Pull up and cover up.”
No sagging, no low necklines, no exposed midriffs — no problem.
Springer said “about 99 percent” of students who attended enrollment at the school last week were dressed appropriately for school. He had to remind a few that hats wouldn’t be allowed.
“I’m really not anticipating it being a big issue here at all,” he said.