Public schools try on uniforms. Baltimore led the way; now Boston is considering it

A number of Bostonians are sporting campaign buttons these days that read: ``I support the School Uniform Project'' As the buttons suggest, they are urging that the city's public school children wear uniforms. One supporter is civil rights activist Jack E. Robinson. He says that schoolchildren often concentrate more on what they wear each day than on what they should study. John Grady, vice-president of the Boston School Committee, has also joined the campaign for uniforms.

Although students in parochial and private schools often wear uniforms, few students in America's public schools do. But the school system in Baltimore has taken the plunge, and some schools in Washington, D.C., and nearby Prince George's County, Md., have followed.

Mr. Grady, who is the athletic director at a parochial high school here, says parents will save money. ``Children [will] no longer pressure their parents to buy costly outfits to match the new items other students are wearing.'' And he adds that if Boston goes the uniform route, ``each school will decide for itself. Parental approval [will be] required.''

The cost savings can be considerable. For instance, a two-piece navy-blue jumper and light-blue blouse for girls or navy-blue trousers with light-blue shirt for boys at Cherry Hill School in Baltimore cost about $30.

In Baltimore the move to uniforms has been led by Ray Bennett, a television news reporter, and Ellen Oberfelder, a public school official. ``We looked for one pilot school to try uniforms as an experiment,'' says Mr. Bennett, who is president of the School Uniform Project there. ``Last September ... three elementary schools with more than 1,000 students'' became part of the experiment.

``One more school was added in February,'' he says. ``At least 35 more schools are likely to sign up for the 1988-89 school year. People from as far away as Texas are calling us, asking ... how they can start a program.'' He was in Boston recently to describe the project to the Boston School Committee and the National Association of Black Americans, of which Mr. Robinson is president.

``It has been a pleasure to see the wearing of uniforms work out so well,'' says William Howard, principal of School 159 in Baltimore. Also known as the Cherry Hill Elementary School, it was the first public school in the United States to authorize uniforms for its students last fall.

When Bennett's group approached Mr. Howard with the uniform idea, the principal listened. ``I was impressed. ..,'' Howard says. ``We sent feelers to my school's parents. Then we took a vote. The parents voted 97 percent for uniforms.''

``Our children tried it; now they like it,'' Howard says. But they were not all enthusiastic at first.

``I really didn't want to wear a uniform,'' says Jamie Dunbar, a fifth-grader. ``[But] when school opened, I wore the outfit, [and] to my surprise I liked it....''

Says another fifth-grader, Keva Jackson: ``I didn't want to dress like everybody. But when I saw others wearing uniforms, I thought they looked good. ... Now, I wear one!''

Baltimore's Mrs. Oberfelder is enthusiastic. She stresses that it is voluntary. The city's central school office does not establish a dress code or uniform policy for the entire school system, she says.

Alice G. Pinderhughes, Baltimore's school superintendent, approved the basic idea but says each school must set up its own program.

``It is not official Baltimore policy; it's the policy of each participating school,'' Oberfelder confirms. The process includes public meetings with parents and taxpayers, she says. ``Parents must be virtually unanimous in their approval. Each school selects its own designs for boys and girls.''

But no student will be kept out of school because he or she does not have a uniform or does not want to wear one. ``This is an individual choice of parents and child,'' Oberfelder says. ``If a family can't afford uniforms, the School Uniform Project outfits their children. If a child refuses to wear the school outfit, he or she may not be kept out of school.''

Some parents were skeptical at first, Oberfelder says. ``After learning how reasonably outfits are priced and how attractive students look, they accepted the program,'' she adds.

The first public school outside Baltimore to accept uniforms was the Burrville School in Washington, D.C. The effort there was led by Linda Cropp, president of the District School Board. A second school has since been added there. Four schools in Prince George's County have also adopted uniforms.

Some school districts, however, have flatly rejected uniforms. In Milwaukee, school officials decided to say ``no'' because they did not consider clothing relevant to learning. In Prince George's County, parents at some schools have said they would be denied their right to select their children's attire.

And some students oppose uniforms, too. ``I've worn them before, and I never did like them,'' said a student in Washington. ``Clothes are a way for teen-agers to express their creativity and individuality. ... Taking away our right to dress as we wish tells us that individuality is frowned upon.''

The demand for uniforms has exceeded the original group's ability to make them, Oberfelder says. ``The prison system also produces clothes for students. Help also comes from G&G Uniforms, a firm that designs and produces uniforms for parochial schools nationwide,'' she says. ``This company trains community people and inmates ..., then hires them. It has opened distribution centers specializing in uniforms for children hard to fit.''

``Boston can produce uniforms and create jobs as they're doing in Baltimore,'' Robinson says. ``Two local schools already have agreed to explore the idea of children wearing uniforms by next September.''

Boston School Superintendent Laval Wilson has pledged ``to explore the idea of uniforms.... This is the first time this idea has come to my attention,'' he says.

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