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Principal says standardized attire changes attitudes

Friday, May 11, 2007

Zack Beavers, a student at Cleveland High School, is dressed according to the school's SSA policies: solid-colored pants, not jeans, and a solid-colored, collared shirt, tucked in. He is also wearing his official school ID around his neck.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
CLEVELAND -- Chuck Rockholt, principal of Cleveland High School in this East Tennessee city, says he can tell a difference in the atmosphere in his school on the "dress-down" days when students are permitted to wear blue jeans.

"There is a different feel to the building," he said.

Rockholt is willing to give the students the chance to dress down for special occasions, but he's also pleased with what he sees as the more professional and disciplined attitude that holds sway the rest of the time.

A Bedford County delegation visited Cleveland High School and Chattanooga Central High School on Tuesday to study how standardized school attire (SSA) has worked at both schools.

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. SSA was recently voted in by the Metro Nashville school system and will begin there this fall.

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.

The site team included 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 Transporation Supervisor David Parker.

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.

Cleveland High School

Unlike Chattanooga Central, where SSA is a relatively new addition, Cleveland High School has had the program in place for a decade -- two years before the arrival of current principal Chuck Rockholt. Rockholt came to Tennessee from Texas, where he led a school in the Dallas / Fort Worth area which had serious gang problems. The dress code at the Texas school was targeted towards the gang problem. Rockholt said that while Cleveland has gang member "wannabes," gangs there aren't anywhere near the kind of problem they were in Texas. Even so, Rockholt believes that SSA had benefits for student attitude and school atmosphere.

The dress code at Cleveland is periodically reviewed by a committee of three students, three teachers and three parents. It does not have the specific color restrictions of Chattanooga Central's code. The requirements are solid-colored shirts with collars, solid-color pants or shorts and no denim. Logos or symbols can be no larger than 2 inches in diameter.

"The students are not dressed alike," said Rockholt. "They're dressed in a similar fashion."

Teenagers, being teenagers, find ways to express themselves even within the restrictions of SSA, and some of them resist it.

At both Cleveland and Chattanooga Central, administrators originally wanted to ban cargo pants and shorts for security reasons but have given in because the multi-pocketed styles are so prevalent. Rockholt has tried to encourage the committee to allow striped or checked shirts, but hasn't been able to convince them yet -- and his policy is to stand behind the committee's recommendation.

Students must also wear their official ID badges on a lanyard around their neck. The bar-coded badges serve several purposes; they not only serve as identification but are used to pay for school lunches and to check out library books. Parents can fund the child's account using the online service PayPal, and can add money instantly or check their balance at any time.

"Spirit shirts," which are any collared shirt decorated with the school's name or colors, are allowed, and spirit T-shirts are allowed on special occasions.

No open-toed shoes are allowed, although that policy may be re-considered.

Like Central, Cleveland allows special "dress-down" days as fund-raisers and for special occasions. Also, students who earn a T-shirt from the Jostens "Renaissance" recognition program are allowed to wear it any day, and as the school year winds down seniors are allowed to wear their official commemorative class T-shirt.

Rockholt said one key to the success of the program is getting teachers to enforce it consistently. At times, he's seen a student during second period wearing disallowed clothing and has tracked down that student's first-period teacher to ask why.

"Getting the teacher to enforce it is the hard part," said Rockholt, and ensuring consistent enforcement from one classroom to the next.

But Rockholt said enforcement must be done with a gentle hand. Calling a student out or embarrassing the student is counterproductive.

"If you give them a chance to comply gracefully," said Rockholt, "99 percent of the time they will."

Several students who passed through the Cleveland library while Rockholt was talking to the Bedford County delegation were asked about what they would change if they could. The students said they wish they could wear jeans and flip-flops.

Any major changes to the dress code are announced in April for the following school year, to give parents plenty of time to plan and shop. But Rockholt said it's sometimes necessary to make mid-year changes in response to specific situations. For example, after an incident where one student was found with Nazi memorabilia, Rockholt issued an immediate prohibition on any military-themed clothing as a precaution.

The dress code prohibits piercings, except for pierced ears, but exceptions have been made for religious purposes.

Like Central, Cleveland expects its teachers to dress professionally but does not hold them to the letter of the law.

Proponents of SSA say that compliant clothes can be bought at a reasonable price, in some cases less expensively than what kids would wear otherwise. Even so, Cleveland High School, with the help of local charities, maintains a "clothes closet" of donated items which can be given to needy students or loaned to a student who arrives at school in violation. That latter use is important so that students don't get the idea that a wardrobe violation means a free trip home.

"The worst thing you can do with a dress code is use it to keep kids out of class," said Rockholt.

Rockholt said it's important for any school or school system considering SSA to have a clear vision of what it wants to accomplish.

"If you don't have a sound reason for doing it, then you're just beating yourself up," he said. When Bedford County school board member Dixie Parker asked him about requiring a dress code for younger students, he said that he saw no good reason for doing so -- but that his opinion could change if circumstances warrant.

Dawn Robinson, a Cleveland school board member and president of the Tennessee School Boards Association, said her board considered it important to give principals control of SSA for their individual schools. She said the program has worked smoothly.

"We don't hear anything about the dress code anymore," she said.