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Metro personnel laud new school attire

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Glencliff Elementary School has examples of acceptable SSA clothing on display in the school lobby. Solid-color, collared shirts are required, and blue jeans are prohibited.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
NASHVILLE -- Teachers and administrators at three Metro schools told Bedford County school representatives on Tuesday that implementation of Standardized School Attire (SSA) has gone smoothly, and claimed it is making a noticeable impact on student attitude and behavior.

"I could not believe how much difference [it made] in the overall discipline," said James Jobe, a teacher at Wright Middle School in front of whose classroom the Bedford County delegation happened to huddle.

"It toned down the entire school environment," said Principal Tony Majors of Glencliff High School.

Ralph Thompson, assistant superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, addresses a group from Bedford County including School Superintendent Ed Gray, School Board Chairman Barry Cooper and Pam Galbreath, assistant principal of Thomas Intermediate School. Thompson arranged for the Bedford County delegation to visit three Metro schools to see how Standardized School Attire (SSA) is working in Nashville.
(T-G Photo by John I. Carney)
Assistant Metro Nashville School Superintendent Ralph Thompson said it's "too soon to tell" if SSA has affected discipline yet; the school system is still gathering data. But Thompson said implementation has gone smoothly, with only 15 to 18 disputes over enforcement in the appeals process.

"All in all, we've not had the kind of backlash we expected," said Thompson.

Five school board members, along with several other administrators and educators, visited Wright Midddle School, Glencliff Elementary and Glencliff High as part of their research into SSA. Board members indicated that what they saw made them even more convinced that the program is beneficial, and it seems even more likely to be adopted in Bedford County for the 2008-2009 school year.

SSA is more than a dress code and less than a uniform. Specific regulations can vary from school system to school system. Metro Nashville's code requires that pants, shorts, skirts or dresses be black, navy blue or khaki-colored. Denim jeans or skirts are prohibited. Shirts must have a collar and be solid color; T-shirts are not allowed. White or navy blue shirts are acceptable at any school; however, each individual school can designate up to four additional shirt colors (typically including the official school colors). Shirts must not have writing on them or any brand or designer logo larger than two inches, and they must be tucked in at all times. Shirts with approved school logos or designs (such as the name or mascot of the school) are acceptable. A belt must be worn if the pants or skirt have belt loops.

Each school can have up to 10 special occasions on which the dress code is loosened -- for example, during homecoming week, students who participate in a 1950s theme day can wear costumes that don't comply with the code.

The implementation of SSA in Nashville appeared stricter than at the two Chattanooga-area high schools the board visited last spring, although both of those schools were in the waning days of their schedule and administrators were allowing some infractions to slide.

Majors called Glencliff High School the most diverse in the state, with a variety of ethnic groups. Glencliff's 1,409 students speak 32 different languages. There are also believed to be eight or nine different gangs represented among the student population. But Majors said Glencliff has seen a benefit from SSA.

"It does make a difference," he said. "It does not stifle creativity."

While SSA is not the only recent change in the school's discipline, Majors said it has been a part of reducing the number of gang-related incidents. Students who can't wear their gang colors during school hours may be less likely to get into gang-related conflicts.

Although red -- a color associated with the Bloods -- is allowed as one of Glencliff's school colors, the fact that so many students wear it takes away its uniqueness as a gang symbol during school hours. Majors also said that he reserves the right to prohibit any specific student from wearing red if that student is found to be a member of the Bloods.

Majors noted that he had been in Shelbyville recently for a funeral, noted the high Latino population, and wondered if the local schools were having any problems with Latino-related gangs.

Majors said that SSA, once the initial questions had been answered, has been easier to enforce than the school's old dress code. He said there were more discipline referrals for the dress code during a given month last year than there have been this year under SSA, because SSA has standardized enforcement.

Metro has specific sequence of penalties for SSA violations, but Majors said no one at Glencliff has yet been sentenced to out-of-school suspension, the most severe penalty, solely as a result of SSA.

Unlike the Chattanooga and Cleveland systems which the school board visited last fall, Metro has implemented SSA for all age groups, not just for high school or middle school students. There are some allowances for very young children, who may have trouble fastening and unfastening a belt.

Jeanette Smith, principal of Glencliff Elementary, said her school was quiet and well-behaved before SSA but she still believes the halls are quieter now than they were before it was implemented.

Proponents of SSA claim that it should not be a financial burden to families, since in many cases compliant clothes can be bought for less than parents are spending now on non-compliant clothes. But all three schools visited Tuesday have clothes closets, to loan clothing items to students who need a quick change or in some cases to give clothing to the truly needed. Wright Middle School worked with a local thrift store and gave gift cards to needy families allowing them to buy gently-used clothing so that their children would be in compliance. Faculty members even donated extra belts which could be loaned to students who show up at school beltless.

Exceptions are also made for students who are required by religious beliefs to dress in a certain fashion.

One potential issue in SSA enforcement is whether teachers set an example for students to follow. In Nashville, as in Bedford County, teachers are represented by a union, and they can't be forced in mid-contract to comply with the exact same color and style requirements imposed on students. But principals can stress the need for faculty to dress professionally, and many teachers are amenable enough to SSA to want it to succeed and will dress accordingly, as role models for their students.

Dr. Angela Garner, principal at Wright Middle School, said teachers understand the need to model SSA compliance for their students, but that exceptions must be made for art, physical education and shop teachers, who may need to dress appropriately to their special work environments. Garner said she sometimes has to pull aside substitute teachers and ask for their help in modeling SSA compliance.

"I really need your help," she tells them.

Garner said the compliance or lack of compliance by the school's staff is one of the first thing parents notice when they visit the school.

Garner said she has 20-30 minor SSA-related incidents on a typical day, but most are corrected right away. She said five or 10 are serious enough to result in in-school suspensions. She also said some of the repeat offenders are exhibiting attention-seeking behavior for one reason or another -- and if SSA weren't available to rebel against, she said, they would just find some other rule to violate.

Majors said that, at least at the beginning, a multitude of questions must be answered about the SSA rules. How do they apply to outerwear, to socks, to an overweight child whose body shape makes it hard to keep his shirt tucked in?

"For everything that you do," he said, "there's going to be 10 exceptions." At the same time, enforcement must be consistent from teacher to teacher and school to school if SSA is to work. Thompson said that if elementary school principals are lax at enforcing SSA among younger children, that can cause legal problems for high school principals when parents complain that the rules aren't being enforced uniformly.

But proponents claim that SSA, once people get used to it, is easier to enforce than old dress codes because it is ultimately simpler and leaves less room for interpretation.

Thompson said that the most common violation of SSA is still low-riding pants.

"We are still fighting the sagging situation," he said.

Participants in Tuesday's site visit included school board Chairman Barry Cooper, Vice-Chair Amy Martin and members Ron Adcock, Diane Neeley and Dixie Parker; School Superintendent Ed Gray; Thomas Intermediate School assistant principal Pam Galbreath; Central High School teacher Marla Jennings; school system administrative assistant Suzanne Hicks; and Ronnie Curtis of the school transportation department. Galbreath and Jennings are also a part of the team which negotiates teacher contracts for Bedford County Education Association, the teachers' union.