(T-G photo by John I. Carney)
HARRISON -- The principals of two Chattanooga-area high schools that have adopted standardized school attire (SSA) told a Bedford County delegation on Tuesday that common sense and flexibility is a key to making the program work.
Six school board members (Chairman Barry Cooper, Ron Adcock, Glenn Forsee, Amy Martin, Dixie Parker and Leonard Singleton), School Superintendent Ed Gray, teachers Marla Jennings and Pam Galbreath and Transportation Supervisor David Parker visited Chattanooga Central High School as well as Cleveland High School in Bradley County as part of their study of SSA, which was recently adopted by the Metro Nashville School System.
SSA is somewhat more than a dress code and less than a uniform. Some policies are more restrictive than others, but the common threads seem to be requirement of collared shirts, prohibition of blue jeans or baggy pants in favor of khakis or similar pants styles.
Proponents of SSA say that it has benefits ranging from increased security and a reduction in class distinctions to a better, more professional attitude among students. Critics of the program say the benefits are anecdotal and not backed up by scientific studies and that the program needlessly limits students' self-expression.
Both Chattanooga Central and Cleveland, however, displayed a diversity of student looks within the framework of SSA -- more of a diversity than the site visit team was expecting. At both schools, some aspects of SSA enforcement had been allowed to slide as the end of the school year approaches; Bedford County officials say they might have gotten a more accurate picture if they'd planned their visits a month or two earlier. But even discounting those infractions, there were various colors and styles on display.
"They manage to still show their originality," said Robert Sharpe, principal of Chattanooga Central.
Bedford County officials say that if SSA is implemented here, it will not be until fall 2008 at the earliest. Community meetings would be held to discuss the program with parents, students and teachers.
Until the Chattanooga and Hamilton County school systems were consolidated in the late 1990s, Chattanooga Central High School -- which, despite its name, is just outside the city limits and has a mailing address in Harrison -- had a homogenous, suburban student body. But consolidation, school zoning and growth have brought a much more diverse population. There are students at Central who speak 12 different languages. There are students so poor that their school lunch is the only real meal they get all day, and students from wealthy families who drive their BMWs to school. One educator has jokingly called the school "Noah's Ark," because it has two of every kind of student.
That diversity sometimes led to conflict, and when Sharpe took over as principal for the 2005-2006 school year the school had severe discipline problems. Gang influences had been reported, and Sharpe had to replace 22 teachers heading in.
"We decided we had to re-draw the code of acceptable behavior here," said Sharpe. He and his assistants took a higher priority role in discipline and became more visible to students.
"The dress code was a tool that worked perfectly," he said.
The move towards SSA had been initiated even before Sharpe arrived, but Sharpe brought a code with him from Brainerd High School, where he had previously served as assistant principal. He sent a letter out to parents informing them of the code.
"[I] expected that phone to start ringing," said Sharpe. "And it did." But in the end, only "four or five" of the callers truly objected to the new dress code.
The dress code at Central calls for khaki pants or shorts. Shirts must have a collar, and must be in the student's assigned "academy" color: purple for freshmen, yellow for students in the technology program, navy blue for students in the math and science program, white for students in the humanities program.
Purple and yellow are Central's school colors.
"Gangs have become an issue in Chattanooga recently," said Sharpe, and standardizing colors helps prevent students from using their clothing to advertise their gang membership. It also makes it easier to spot people who don't belong.
"The dress code allows us to spot an intruder," said Sharpe.
Outerwear like sweatshirts or hoodies, if worn to class over the student's allowed attire, must either be gray, or the color of the student's academy shirt, or the school colors. Outerwear is a concern at Central because the building has heating and cooling problems and some classrooms are uncomfortably cool during the winter.
"Outerwear is the biggest issue," Sharpe said.
He said that once SSA was in place, parents embraced it.
"Parents don't mind because it's easy to shop," said Sharpe.
The middle schools which feed into Central have similar but slightly less restrictive policies, so students are already somewhat familiar with the process by the time they arrive.
The students are allowed "dress down" days for special occasions or as a reward for academic performance, and some school groups are allowed to hold "dress down day" fund-raisers, where students pay for the right to wear normally-forbidden clothing like T-shirts. This week, seniors are being allowed to wear jeans. On football game days, players can wear their jerseys and cheerleaders can wear their uniforms.
Although part of the rationale for SSA is to prevent students from flashing gang colors, Sharpe said he makes no attempt to enforce things like shoelace or sock colors.
Sharpe proudly points to the increase in student performance the first year of his tenure.
"We're thinking a lot of it is due to the climate change in the school," said Sharpe.
Promotion rates rose from 81.5 percent to 93.8 percent. Academic test scores improved in a wide range of subjects, and the number of student suspensions dropped from 479 to 330. How much of that is due specifically to the dress code, as opposed to the new administration and its disciplinarian approach, is open to debate, but Sharpe clearly believes that SSA was a major factor.
Sharpe expects his faculty to dress professionally, and stressed that to them when he took over, but they aren't held to the exact color or style requirements that apply to the students.
The program has evolved over time. Originally, cargo pants were forbidden, but that rule has since been abandoned. The school is considering allowing more color options for pants -- perhaps black or navy blue as well as khaki.
Common sense applies as well. For example, the rules state that all shirts must be tucked in, but if an overweight child is having problems keeping his shirt tucked in due to body shape that is taken into account. There's no formal "opt-out" policy, but one student whose religious beliefs required her to wear a long skirt was allowed to do so even though the skirt wasn't to standard.
Obviously, there are still children, and even a few parents, who resist the program.
"The dress code creates yet another rule for kids to break," said Sharpe. One teacher told the site visit team about a mother who complained that she could not afford to buy compliant clothing for her child -- but teachers noticed that the child wore a number of different stylish coats to school over the course of the winter.
Sharpe noted that while the vast majority of students in an opinion poll said SSA stifled their freedom of expression, almost the same majority reported that they are able to be themselves at school.
"Whether they know it or not, they're feeling comfortable at school," said Sharpe.
Tomorrow: Cleveland High School