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With school about to start, District ‘clarifies’ uniform policy

Some schools enforced strict rules on dress, while others all but abandoned any requirements.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For the last several years, students at Edison/Fareira High School in the Hunting Park neighborhood of Philadelphia have had quite the look: gray pants, yellow shirt, sweater vest sporting the school’s logo, striped tie, black belt, black oxford shoes.

But that uniform came at a cost: about $160 for one outfit, including shoes, if the student purchased the items at Cramers Uniforms store on Frankford Avenue, as the school directed on the School District website. Students also need a separate set of gym clothes.

“For one child, it adds up,” said Kia Dupree, mother of two Edison students and a Building 21 student.

Seventeen years ago, the School District of Philadelphia became the first large school system in the country to institute a school uniform policy, a move intended to help students stay focused on studies rather than clothing fads and to reduce in-school disputes and socioeconomic disparities.

In the early years, rules were rather basic: solid-color pants with tops reflecting school colors. But a school-by-school review of current requirements shows wide variation in dress requirements, and some schools, including Edison/Fareira, developed codes mirroring those more often found in the private school sector.

At the same time, some of the District’s more elite schools seem to have tossed aside the uniform requirement. Science Leadership Academy, for instance, tells students to “please be respectful.” The High School for the Creative & Performing Arts says “students must be appropriately dressed for a professional learning environment.” Jeans seem commonplace in some schools, but have been deemed out of bounds in neighborhood schools.

And many schools – until this week – required students to wear shirts sporting the school logo, a rule that limited how widely parents could shop for bargains – and one that flew in the face of policy, according to Karyn Lynch, chief of student support services for the District.

The dress codes for nearly all the District’s 200-plus schools are posted on the District’s website here. All summer, as families were purchasing back-to-school clothes, about half the District’s schools asked parents to buy shirts and such with school logos but on Wednesday, Aug. 30, after the Notebook started asking questions, the website information was revised and all references to logos at individual schools were deleted. Except on some school’s individual pages, as pictured above.

“We didn’t change the policy,” Superintendent William Hite said on Thursday. “We clarified for schools what the uniform policy is. You can’t force children to have a certain brand of clothes, [or use] only this vendor, or [require] that logo. We clarified what the policy says.”

As 130,000 students and their parents prepare for the start of school, the District’s policy on school uniforms seems in tatters, even as numerous parents interviewed express support for the idea, at least in theory. And revisions in policy are in the works, Lynch said Wednesday.

A looser dress code at Edison would please Dupree. “My daughter would get suspended because she didn’t have her uniform on. It would be summer, and they expected her to wear that sweater vest. It was hot, and she wasn’t going to wear that vest,” she said. “Or she didn’t have on a belt, or the correct shoes, little simple things.”

Especially galling, she said, was the contrast with Building 21, where her younger daughter is enrolled. The uniform requirement there was quite relaxed – just a T-shirt with a logo. The cost? Ten dollars.

“The uniform policy at Edison, I’m hoping it will change,” she said.

Interviews with parents suggest broad support for uniforms, at least in schools that don’t ask too much.

“I personally appreciate the uniform policy. I think it cuts down on bullying and I think it’s good for kids who may not have the means to have the name-brand whatever, the name-brand shoes and jeans,” said Robin Roberts, a parent with three children in District schools and a spokeswoman for Parents United for Public Education, an advocacy group.

But, she added, many parents balk at having to buy shirts with the school logo or risking a reprimand for their child for wearing a skirt too short or not wearing a tie.

“I’ve seen kids sent home because they’re out of uniform. You’re now denying this kid access to their education because they’re out of uniform? That doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Late Wednesday, the District informed the Notebook via email that the chief schools officer, Shawn Bird, had emailed all principals that afternoon reminding them “that issuing a suspension to a student not in uniform is a violation of the Student Code of Conduct and District policy.” He also told principals that “students cannot be required to purchase a uniform at a particular location; to purchase a uniform with a logo or school name; or to purchase specific uniform garments, for example, a man-tailored shirt.”

The School Reform Commission voted in August 2016 to prohibit suspensions of students for not conforming to a school’s dress code.

Some schools – Roberts mentioned Masterman – have minimal policies related to dress.

“Why doesn’t this school have a uniform policy while in other schools, students are losing their education [for being noncompliant]?” she asked. She also noted that the more particular a school gets about what students must wear, the fewer options parents have in searching for a sale or a bargain.

Lynch, when asked whether special admission schools were exempt from the District dress code, answered in one word: “No.” She added that the School Reform Commission will consider an updated dress code at its September meeting. The revisions would “lend some amount of discretion to individual schools to determine what their policy is going to be.”

The message to principals, Lynch said, is that “the cost of a uniform should be what a parent can bear.” Assistance to families also is available, she said.

Latima Hall, a parent whose son Chad, 8, is entering 2nd grade at Henry Lea School, was interviewed in August at the District’s back-to-school fair at the High School of the Future. She said she shops for bargains, looking for Lea’s colors, a navy blue shirt and khaki pants.

“I plan and shop all summer and by the time school starts, he’s fine for the year. Clothes can get pricey,” she said.

Terry Jones of West Philadelphia also was at the fair with several grandchildren. She said she favors the uniform policy “because it saves conflicts. Some of the kids, they’re so materialistic, wearing the bling.” She has a secret to holding down expenses, she said: “With my grandkids, when one grows out of something, I pass it along to the next one. That saves me a lot of money.”

Stacy Joseph, also at the fair, was less enthusiastic. Her family moved to Philadelphia from New York City with plenty of school clothes for her two boys, but then she had to outfit them in the school colors. Now they’re at Austin Meehan Middle School, wearing navy blue polo shirts and khaki pants.

“It’s fine because we have to do it, but I’d rather have them in regular clothes,” she said.

In an interview, Sylvia Simms, former SRC member and co-founder of the Parent Power advocacy group, bristled at the situation in recent years where a few, mostly “elite” schools have all but abandoned a dress code. “For it to be a District policy, everybody should be doing the same thing,” Simms said.

“At the end of the day, it’s about the child’s education, not about how the child looks, what the child is wearing. We as a system have gotten off-track. We want to focus on everything but educating the children.”