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Long Beach Press-Telegram -- Letter From Board President

Long Beach Press-Telegram
Letter to the Editor by Karin Polacheck, LBUSD Board President

At the request of many parents, the Board of Education of the Long Beach Unified School District took action in January to require school uniforms throughout the Long Beach Unified School District in kindergarten through eighth grade beginning in the 1994-95 school year.

Why did we take this historic step that has gained national attention and widespread support from parents and school districts from coast to coast?

Over the years, schools had increasingly become a distracting forum for factionalism, ethnic rivalry and socio-economic class divisions. Parents were growing more concerned about school safety and intimidation associated with gang activity and clothing. So we decided to do something about these problems.

This past school year we had 11 pilot schools serving nearly 8,000 students in uniform. These schools are becoming educational workplaces. Students arrive dressed for success, ready to learn. They're getting along with one another better and experiencing significant gains. Principals and teachers tell us that students' success is taking many forms -- fewer absences, fewer tardies, fewer truancies, fewer referrals to the office for behavior problems, fewer suspensions and expulsions, better grades and, in some cases, significantly higher achievement.

Our uniform mandate is part of a comprehensive strategy for improving the learning environment and safety. No single program or action, by itself, will instantly solve every problem. But student uniforms are one of several dynamic factors that influence learning. Together with other reforms being pursued by our schools, such as renewed emphasis upon basic skills, student accountability and respect for others, our new required uniforms should substantially improve the learning environment at all of our 56 elementary and 14 middle schools and enhance the safety of 58,000 students.

Uniforms improve discipline, self-esteem and self-respect. They focus attention upon learning and away from such distractions as fashion competition and gang intimidation. Requiring uniforms enhances school security by permitting identification of non-students who try to enter the campus. Weapons have been concealed in jumpsuits, overcoats, and baggy gang clothing.

Uniforms help to create unity amid diversity by easing ethnic and cultural tensions and encouraging values of tolerance and civility. Uniforms also bridge differences between students and families of widely disparate income levels. Students from modest economic backgrounds are often the target of exclusion or ridicule on account of their dress. Even from the earliest grades, children feel the pressure to conform to idealized standards of dress, which may be beyond their family's means. Uniforms eliminate this pressure and allow the attention of students to be directed to learning and growing.

Affordable school uniforms can reduce clothing costs substantially. The average clothing cost per child in schools with a student uniform is markedly less than that in schools without uniforms. The typical uniforms cost $65-75 per year for a set of three -- far less than some students spend for one item of designer clothing Basic uniforms may be obtained at local thrift stores, department stores or uniform suppliers.

Chosen by each school, school uniforms provide students with a school identity, strengthen school and individual spirit and pride -- not unlike the way an athletic team uniform builds team identity, morale and self-esteem. Instead of feeling alienated or disconnected, students enjoy the sense of belonging that school uniforms bring.

Dress affects attitude and behavior. Children generally act the way they are dressed. Children with uniforms come to school to work. School is then seen as a workplace for teaching and learning It is not seen as a battleground, playground or fashion stage.

At Whittier Elementary School, the first central area elementary school in Long Beach to adopt uniforms, a remarkable increase in attendance followed adoption of uniforms. After three years of the pilot uniform policy at that school, Whittier now has the next-to-the-lowest absenteeism among our district's 56 elementary schools. Student uniforms have had a dramatic impact on creating a positive learning climate at that school. Principals and teachers at uniformed schools report that students take better care of their school environment, including their desks and books.

Our mandatory uniform requirement is supported by pending legislation, Senate Bill l269, which has won strong bipartisan support. Whatever compliance measures are adopted for our district-wide mandatory policy, we are committed to assuring that no punitive measure is imposed that would deprive any student of an education. Such a measure would be counter to the entire thrust of the uniform policy, which is to get children into school and to focus on learning.

I am delighted by the overwhelming community support for our decision to require mandatory school uniforms. As a parent of a child who wears a uniform to school every day, I believe our action is wise, warranted and long overdue.